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Author

LL Pearce has always had a passion for writing, completing short stories and impressing her tutors from a young age. She was born and raised in the countryside in Leicestershire, UK along with her younger brother. She has always had a strong passion for Americana, her love of suspense, thrillers and V8’s fuelling her to create something others would love to read. Now living in Hertfordshire with her partner, she spends her free time walking, travelling and experiencing everything she possibly can.

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Copyright © Leia-Louise Pearce This work is registered with the UK Copyright Service under registration number 284673016

Apart for any use permitted under UK Copyright law, this publication may only be reproduced, stored, transmitted by any form or means with the prior written permission of the author or publisher.

All characters in this publication are fictional and any resemblance to real people either living or dead is purely coincidental along with their thoughts or feelings. All writing in this publication is fictional, though real towns may have been used, they have never been visited and are used purely as a base setting for the imagination.

ISBN 978-1-62890-431-4 (eBook format)

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A Dedication

For a friend, who was taken from this Earth too soon. No mountain was ever too high for you to climb and I hope you enjoy your view from the top, dear Fénian.

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Acknowledgments

There are many people I would like to thank for being there for me, not only to keep my writing flowing page after page, but who also guided me through some very difficult times. My Grandparents for helping me to see reality, not matter how difficult it was. My Mom for picking me up when I had nothing left in the world. My Brother and Step-Dad for always making me laugh at the most inappropriate moments, but when it was much needed. My friends and Garage Crew for Chinese nights, weekends filled with cars and letting me loose with a welder on a classic GMC. Lastly I would like to thank Alasdair for sticking by my side and encouraging me to be the best I can. For being my love, my best friend and stealing my heart in more way than one. I am forever grateful. I know there are others that I would like to mention, for putting up with my wacky ideas and also being some of the greatest people I’ve ever met. I’m sure you know who you are and that you’ll always be part of me, whether you are 1 0 miles away or 5011.

I love you all.

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Prologue

“I said stay away from me!” Louise shouted as he came closer, her English accent stronger now that she was angry. “I don’t want you anywhere near me! I don’t care if you think you still love me, it’s over! Utterly and completely! If you loved me, really loved me, you wouldn’t have gone off with that, that, that SKANK!” She threw the rest of her clothes into her suitcase, not caring that they looked like a mess of rags and weren’t neatly folded. She had to leave, and leave now. If she didn’t she knew that would be it. He’d say sorry and persuade her to stay and say that it wouldn’t happen again, blah, blah, blah. Even force the situation around so that she was the one in the wrong. That she was the one that made him do it. What a load of crap. Always had been and always will be. “But baby, I promise, it was only lust. You’re the gal for me, always have been. Don’t leave like this, we can talk ‘bout it. Please baby, please.” His Southern United States drawl hissed as he tried to pull her up from her knees where she was scooping the few shoes she had into her case, her long waves of hair covering her face. She violently shrugged him off, flicking his arm away as she carried on packing, knowing that his anger was bubbling deep down, but not caring. Once she’d finished and zipped up the case, she stood bolt upright and looked up at her now ex-partner, dry tears stinging her bright blue eyes, but being so infuriated she couldn’t care less. “You know, I thought you would be different when we moved up here Chris. That you’d love me like you did when we first met. That the past wouldn’t rear its ugly head ag-“

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“You know the past has nothin’ to do with this baby, c’mon.” “The past? The past? It has everything to do with it! I should have known you’d never change, no matter how far away we got! You make me sick!” She barged past him, heading straight toward the bedroom door, dragging the case along behind her. She hoped all he would do was stare open mouthed, not believing that she could walk out on him after all this time, let alone have the guts to talk to him how she was. He said, raising his voice, “Doesn’t it mean anythin’ anymore? The time we spent, the last six years? C’mon baby, I never meant to hurt you, I promise.” She had her hand on the door knob, ready to open it fully so that she could get her and the case through it, when she stopped. Without turning around, she said in a calm and collected manner, “No, they don’t. And yes, you did.” And with that, she left through the door, slamming it behind her as she went.

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He paced the bedroom like a caged animal, trying to think of what he could do to make her stay with him. Maybe she just needs time alone again. He thought to himself as he ran his right hand through his short brown hair before placing it back on his hip. I bet she’s gonna go to that Shelby’s house for a while. Only dawg gone friend she’s got ‘round these parts. She’ll poison Lou against me, I know it. Dang it! He stopped pacing, ran to the door and flung it open, not caring that the knob made a small dent in the wall. He hurled himself down the stairs two at a time and raced down the hallway towards the front door.

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She was closing the tailgate after loading the case into the back of her white 1964 Chevrolet C10 pickup truck when he ran out, and with flames in his eyes, grabbed her by the shoulder and spun her around. He backed her up against the tailgate, too close for comfort. As she tried to push him away he took a step closer, almost to the point where their bodies were touching. Louise stiffened slightly, scared of what might come next. He bent down and whispered in her ear. “If ya want it this way then I’ll give ya what you want, that’s fine, but this ain’t over yet sugar, not by a long shot.” He took a step back and, with her head down and her keys in her shaking hand, Louise ran to the driver’s door and flung herself onto the black and white bench seat. She started her V8 engine before throwing it into drive and tearing out of the gravel driveway, leaving her beautiful three acre plot, five bedroom house, and of course, her lying, cheating ex.

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Tuesday

“I tell ya what girly girl, you sure know how to make me smile, even though I’m bored outta my face.” Shelby declared as she leant her chin on her hands, her blonde bob falling over her wrists. “Well, when you’re in Rome.” Replied Louise. Her long, light brown hair was tied back onto a pony tail, the waves being swept up and out of her face. She had tried to keep it down so many times in the past, but had figured that it was easier just to leave it up. She was tidying the shelves in front of the counter, on which Shelby, her best and nearly only friend in Elba, was leaning on. It had been a slow morning in the drug store, and unlike Shelby, Louise was trying to make the most of the silence. “I am so bored.” Shelby continued, “I wish it would pick up a little, an’ then maybe I could chat to someone other than you an’ Bryan. Not that he ever appears from the back, mind.” “Hey, I heard that Shelby!” Came the shout from the back room. “Get on an’ do somethin’ worth the money I’m payin’ you.” “Nice to know what you think of me.” Louise said without lifting her head from rearranging the Tylenol boxes. “You know I’m only messin’ with you. Besides, ya still owe me for that pizza night we had last week. An’ I expect it to be good.” Shelby forced herself off the counter with a grunt, making it sound like more of an effort than it actually was. She popped a boiled sweet into her mouth as she moved around the counter and stood, hands on hips, next to Louise, inspecting what she was doing. “Okay, okay, I know I do. How about you stop sassing me, and I’ll think of

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something to do this Friday? Maybe I could make my famous spaghetti bolognaise?” She saw Shelby scowl a little out the corner of her eye. “Don’t screw your face up, I know you like it. And we could watch that movie I hate?” Shelby contemplated this for a couple of minutes, looking at Louise through overly squinted eyes, and Louise couldn’t help but giggle a little at her friend . Finally Shelby gave in with a sigh. “Fair enough, I can do that. An’ Pretty In Pink it is. Just be glad I love ya so. How’s the house comin’ along anyhow? How did it go with the closet guys? Get everythin’ as you wanted it?” “I tell you what, they were in and out in no time. And you will adore it. It’s every woman’s dream closet. Well, kind of anyhow. Even have a wall for shoes! ” Louise motioned with her hands and Shelby chuckled. “More gaps than shoes though, so I’m thinking I’m going to have to pop down the Enterprise and do a bit of shoe shopping one day, just to fill the spaces.” Louise’s eyes moved back to the Tylenol boxes. “Oh, and I went up to the Calahee ranch on Sunday.” “I’m jealous o’ your closet already an’ I ain’t even seen it totally finished yet. Yeah, you said you were gonna. How’d it all go? Jerry as nice as you thought he’d be? You see any o’ them guys that work up there? I bet they look all sexy an’ stuff.” Shelby aimed a wink at Louise who had moved a little further down the shelf. “No I didn’t see the guys up there, I guess they were busy working.” She pulled a face, and Shelby dropped her hands from her hips as she wondered down the aisle to catch up with Louise. “And Jerry was lovely, thank you for asking. His wife, Jessie-Lou, was very welcoming. She cooks for all the guys in the morning, says that I’m going to have to get used to having pancakes and bacon with a strong cup of coffee. Gives you more energy that lasts throughout the day apparently. And Jerry told me to watch out for the guys, because they can be a little funny with

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newcomers. He also said that the last girl they had up there only lasted three days. Couldn’t handle all the testosterone, so Jessie-Lou said. Jerry also cooks lunch for everyone out by the fire pit. He said he normally does steak, depending on what meat stock they’ve got.” Shelby, as usual, was more interested about the men that worked on the ranch than anything else, Louise shaking her head every now and again at the questions she was throwing about as she explained in more detail. Shelby had a thing for cowboys that Louise never understood. She said it was how funny and outgoing they were whenever she to bumped into one down at the local bar. She’d been divorced from her violent ex-husband for nearly three years, and hadn’t had much luck with relationships since. The final attack by her ex, after the divorce papers came through, meant Shelby was laid up in a hospital bed with a broken arm and fractured eye socket, along with numerous smaller injuries. That was when Louise was hired to work in place of Shelby at the drug store, until she was able to come back to work anyway. As luck would have it, Bryan, the manager, kept Louise on even after Shelby had recovered. His excuse was that Louise would be excellent help as Shelby was still recovering. After all, “She shouldn’t be liftin’ anythin’ too heavy, not with that arm o’ hers. Wouldn’t want her to have an accident an’ be back in that bed now, would we?” Bryan was a sweet man when he was in the mood. Since then Shelby and Louise had been virtually inseparable. Anyone would have thought that them working together was more than enough, but they still enjoyed chatting on the phone at 2am and getting a take-away on Friday nights, that was, unless Louise decided to cook. “Well, sounds pretty interestin’, I must say, but all I wanna know come Monday mornin’ is what them boys are like. An’ ya best keep nothin’ to yourself. I

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know what you’re like, withholdin’ information.” Shelby declared. “Anyhow, want me to pop on back an’ check who’s goin’ for lunch first?” “Yeah, sure. If we have a choice, make sure I go first. I’m dying of hunger out here.” Louise said back to Shelby as she moved towards the ‘Staff Only’ door. It lead out to where there was a store room, office, and a rather large staff room that Louise and Shelby had decorated during their lunch hours a couple of years ago.

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Lunch is so boring. Louise thought as she sat out the back in the staff room of the drug store. Okay, so I’ve got thirty minutes left, nothing to read, and nothing to do. Ah, now where is that iPod? With that, she reached down into her brown overly large bag (which was a God send at $10), and shuffled around for her music player. She loved this bag, purely for the fact that you could stuff so much in it, be it books, the odd small amount of shopping, anything at all. The only problem with that was finding it all again when she needed something and more often than not, it was squashed right down at the bottom. Knowing that she was never going to succeed, she lifted up the bag onto the round table, tipped it upside down and dumped out all the contents. “Damn it.” She muttered under her breath as everything seemed to fall onto the floor rather than the table. Without getting off her chair, she bent down and scooped up her now finished book, a couple of black biros, her hair brush, three lip salves, her white Samsung cell phone that had, strangely enough, stayed intact, 54c in change, her purse, and numerous other items that seemed to appear from nowhere.

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She sat back up straight and threw everything she’d picked up off the floor back into her bag. Next she went through everything that was on the table. She stopped when she noticed her green and white packet of cigarettes. She flipped the packet open and looked at the light brown tips of the remaining fifteen Marlboro Menthols she occasionally smoked, and the lighter that was stuffed in place of the smoked five. She let out a sigh as she closed the top and threw them back into her bag, remembering how her ex had always hated the fact that she liked the rare cigarette. “Those things’ll kill you, ya know that? Ain’t no way you’re comin’ ‘round me when you’ve had one o’ those. I don’t wanna die from your stupid mistakes. Sometimes I wish you’d listen to me an’ quit it.” Listening to him repeating the words in her head made her feel slightly sick. Every time she had fancied one, or had a sneaky one after work with Shelby, she’d go home and that would be what he’d say to her. Sometimes she’d even get the odd slap if she back chatted him. That wasn’t a problem now, seeing as she was a free agent. Though every once and a while, like just then, she’d still feel guilty just lo oking at the pack. Finally she found her music player, hidden underneath a mound of old receipts. She quickly looked at each receipt and discarded the ones she didn’t need, leaving the ones she did on the table ready to be put back into her purse when she could be bothered. She picked up the box that her iPod was in and casually opened the top, popping out the player. She had wanted to keep this one in its box, not only because it was new, but because her old one had gotten that scratched that you could barely see the screen. She didn’t want that happening to this one.

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Normally she had it on shuffle, but, and she didn’t really know why, she fancied listening to something a bit more easy going and heart felt. She positioned the earphones so that they were comfortable and started to flick through the endless amounts of songs she had on there to try and find ‘American Pie’. Back at her house, that she had bought thanks to the pay out that her solicitor had gotten her from her ex, which was $80,000 to be exact, she had over three thousand songs listed on her iTunes. To be honest, she should have bought the 16GB, but at the time she didn’t really think it through, as with a lot of things since the relationship breakup. That’s it. She thought, pulling the headphones out of her ears and placing the music player on the table. I need a cigarette. To hell with memories. Shelby is going to be so miffed I’ve gone out without her. And with that, she dove into her bag, picked up the packet of cigarettes and made her way to the front of the store through the ‘Staff Only’ door.

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He sat outside the drug store in his pickup truck as he did most days on his lunch break. He watched her hurriedly pull on the door and move around to the staff parking bays at the side of the building, lighting up a cigarette as she went. Dirty woman. Look how she is now she ain’t with me. Can see where that eighty grand has gone. Cancer sticks. Makes me wanna puke. She took a long suck on her cigarette, almost like she’d needed it . He winched when he saw her breathe out the cloud of white smoke, watching her as she relaxed back against the wall, one foot underneath her. He hit out at the steering

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wheel in his frustration. She’d look quite sexy if it weren’t for that dang cig. He leant back against the seat and rubbed the back of his tired neck with his right hand. He watched her for another couple of minutes, watching her finish the cigarette he so loathed. He noticed her look over at the pickup truck, her pony tail flicking up against her ear, before dashing back inside the store. He gripped his hands on the wheel, squeezing so hard that his knuckles almost turned white. She makes me so angry. He took a few deep breaths. So angry. He turned the key in the ignition and sat for another few minutes thinking about what he had just seen and glancing across at the drug store. He could just make out a blonde woman moving about inside. Shelby. “Obviously I didn’t do enough when she was with me.” He said out loud, giving the steering wheel a slight whack again with the palm of his hand. Realising that he had spoken out loud, he turned back to his thoughts. She didn’t get enough discipline when she was with me. I must’ve been so weak to let her get away with what she did. Now look, all the growin’ signs of bein’ a whore. Next thing she’ll be roaming the streets at night with boys hangin’ off o’ her. Dis-cus-tin’. He shook his head as he put the truck into drive. With one last look at the store, he put his foot to the floor and squealed down the road back towards his place of work.

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Revival

“I can’t believe we are going to be stuck inside again on such a glorious day.” Louise said as she hopped out of her pickup truck and strolled over to meet Shelby outside the drug store. “Yeah, tell me about it sugar.” Shelby was just finishing the last of her cigarette as Bryan poked his head out of the front entrance. “C’mon girls, get you’re behinds on in. I got a feelin’ that it’s gonna be a busy day today.” And with that, he disappeared back inside, the door chime chinking as the door closed. “Well, I guess we best get on inside. I can’t wait for that week off. It really can’t come quick enough. What about you? Anything planned? Movies? Dates? It’s not like you not to have plans.” Louise asked as they both slowly made their way over to the glass door. “Well, now that you ask, I am very glad to say that, no, I haven’t. Unless you call stayin’ in bed as long as possible plans. I’m as free as a bird, as Skynyrd would say.” “Well, okay then. Just so long as you make sure you have some room in your very tight schedule for your most favourite girlfri end.” Louise opened the door and they both scooted in. “We’ll see. But I’m not so sure that you’re my favourite.” Shelby said with a wink. “Oh, well, if you put it like that then-” “Hey, ya know I’m only messin’ with you.” She said giving Louise a light punch on the shoulder before a little giggle. “C’mon, let’s dump this stuff out back an’ get

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lookin’ busy.” With that, both the girls dropped their bags in the staff room on the table and stopped behind the counter before Bryan noticed. Bryan was the ladies favourite employer that either of them had had throughout their working lives. To be honest, both Louise and Shelby had taken a shine to Bryan, even though he could be rather brash sometimes, and Bryan had equally taken a shine to the girls. They all seemed more like a family instead of colleagues, and with the amount of ups and downs that each of them had had throughout the years: Shelby’s divorce, Louise leaving her partner and Bryan losing a grandchild, it wasn’t surprising. Some people in town thought it was strange, as Bryan had a very close knit family outside of work, and business should be kept business and a boss should be a boss. Others thought it was a nice way to work, knowing where your place was, but also that you could talk or confide in each other without feeling embarrassed. Obviously they never spoke about overly personal things, unless of course it was just the girls, but just knowing that you wouldn’t be lo oked at like a cry baby when something went wrong was a nice thought. “Right girls.” Bryan said coming out from the back whilst looking at a few pieces of paper in his hands. “We have a nice delivery today, short an’ sweet, so not much movin’ ‘bout’s needed. It seems to me,” He wandered over to the counter and lay the sheets down, pointing at certain items, “that we might need to move the Zyrtec and Equate allergy packs down a bit to get the rest of the Alavert out that’s comin’ in.” He looked up at the girls as if waiting for a response. “Okay. What time is this delivery due? I could start moving things around, save any messing later.” Louise responded while Shelby stood there taking it all in.

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“It’s due ‘bout half ten, so I wouldn’t bother movin’ anythin’ just yet. Give it ‘til ten anyhow. We also have more stock of all that eye care comin’ it, so we may need to make an extra row for three or four o’ those products on that swivel stand. There should be more than enough room for y’all. Right, I’ll leave these print outs with you.” He looked over to Shelby before raising his eyebrows. “Don’t worry ‘bout gettin’ them all screwed up, Shelby, I have another copy in the office, but I would like that one to stay mine please. Shelby.” “Yes Mr. B.” Shelby said with the smile of a five year old. “Good. But don’t come all sweet and innocent with me, ‘cause I know you ain’t. Now, I’ll be out back doin’ some paperwork, so if y’all need me, well, tough.” Bryan gave a cheeky smile and wandered off back through the ‘Staff Only’ door and into the office. “Mr. B? You are so full of surprises.” Louise said to Shelby as she held in a giggle. “Oh yeah. He loves it really, an’ he knows it. Plus I gotta give him somethin’ to smile ‘bout all day while he’s stuck out in that office o’ his.” She said in reply as she scooted out from behind the counter to flip the sign on the door from ‘Closed’ to ‘Open’. “Look at that queue outside again. I swear people can’t get enough o’ me.” She directed it at Louise as she peered out of the glass door with her hands on her hips. “Another slow one then?” Louise replied as she turned to the row of shelves behind her. She needed to finish off getting together some prescriptions before the rush of old age pensioners at lunch time. “Yeah. Another slow one. Oh, no, wait. Here comes that old lady from your street. You got her prescription ready yet?”

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“It’s started early today.” Louise sighed as she flicked through the packets to find the one for her neighbour. “Yep.” Shelby opened the door for the old lady, who smiled up at her. “Why hello Mrs. Kasabrak. Louise is just by the counter. She’ll just get your pills for you.” Shelby smiled, her eyes following her as she made her way over to Louise. Mrs. Kasabrak was no taller than 5’3” with a slight hunch on her back . She had what Louise called ‘perfectly formed white curls that I’d die for when I get to that age’ and a cane to help her walk . It was beautifully warm outside but Mrs. Kasabrak was wearing a khaki rain mac, a dull purple pullover and black chinos. “Hi there Mrs. Kasabrak.” Came from Louise as she turned around to greet her neighbour from a few doors down. “How are you today?” “Well child I’m just fine. Just fine. Looks like nice weather we’re havin’ rest o’ today. Shame you’re all stuck up in here. Y’all tell that boss o’ yours that your good old friend Mrs. Kasabrak said ya need some time off while the weather is still good enough for you to enjoy. Ain’t no point the sun shinin’ if ya ain’t gonna enjoy it now is there?” “Don’t worry Mrs. Kasabrak I have a week off shortly so hopefully the sun will still be shining for me. I’ll have to make sure you have all of your prescription too. Wouldn’t want you running out in the middle of that week now would we? And here, these ones are yours, if you just want to check they are all there.” Louise said, handing the old lady her white bag of prescription pills. “I trust ya sugar, no need to check.” She said as she grabbed hold of the bag and balanced herself so that she could use her cane without any bother. “Thank you, an’ I’ll see you again.” She said with a smile and made her way to the door.

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“That’s no problem at all. See you soon.” Louise called after her giving her a wave. Mrs Kasabrak waved back, and with that she shifted past Shelby and was gone out of the door. “I still can’t believe how cute she is.” Shelby called over to Louise as she watched the old lady move across the parking lot to her old burgundy Buick sedan. “She makes me just wanna give her a big ole hug every time I see her. I can’t believe ya could think she’d be annoyin’.” She turned to face her friend, who was still behind the counter fiddling with prescriptions. She dropped her hands from her hips and started to make her way over to Louise, shifting the odd bits on the self as she went. “You don’t have to finish those off now. You’ve got all mornin’ an’ nothin’ excitin’ is gonna happen, as usual. Unless boss man decides to run ‘round the parkin’ lot again in his underwear. Now that was funny, though not a sight I’d wanna see again.” She laughed to herself as Louise kicked out the step stool so that she could reach the pills on the top few shelves. “I don’t think it was too funny for him thinking that spider had crawled into his undies, but it sure as hell was hilarious to watch.” Louise said turning her head slightly so that she could see her friend trying to walk and laugh at the same time. “Do you think that anyone actually put those recordings on YouTube?” “I ain’t checked, an’ it’s not like I’d want to.” Shelby laughed. “Well, I’m just glad he got it out o’ his system. Don’t wanna be seeing somethin’ like that for a long time to come. Now, somethin’ a little sweeter would be nice.” She paused to sigh as he eyes lifted to the ceiling, Louise watching with lifted eyebrows. “Why can’t we just have a day where, instead of old guys comin’ in wantin’ their pills for their arthr itis, we have young hunks comin’ in after the odd ointment, or aftershave or somethin’.”

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By this time Shelby had reached the counter, and was now leaning over it, laughing fit over and a dreamlike glaze covering her eyes.

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“Hey, Lou, check it out.” Shelby said quietly, leaning a little closer so that Louise could hear her but keeping an eye on the tall, dark figure that had just walked through the door. They were standing in the aisle two down from the entrance, finishing putting the extra stock out from the delivery, which, as usual, had come one hour late. It was now close to noon, and by the sound of Shelby’s whisper, Louise knew that ‘somethin’ sweeter’ had just entered. She lifted her head to join Shelby’s so that they could see over the shelf, Louise being slightly smaller and having to lift herself up on her toes. As they looked towards the door that had just clicked back into place, both of the girls’ eyes fell onto a rather tall stranger. From where they were standing they could see he was wearing black jeans, a black t-shirt and a black wide brimmed cowboy hat, slightly curved up on each side. It was positioned slightly forward so that you couldn’t see his eyes, and an unexpected tingle spread across Louise’s skin as she watched him move. Keeping her eyes focused on the man, Shelby whispered in Louise’s ear. “Now would ya look at that? This day just keeps gettin’ better an’ better.” She dashed back around the counter leaving Louise to duck into the aisle. With a huge grin on her face Shelby said to the unexpected customer, “Why hey there, anythin’ I can get for you today? Not seen the likes o’ you ‘round here before. Where ya from?”

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“I’m fine, thanks ma’am.” Was all the stranger said, turning and walking down the opposite aisle from Louise. “Shelby, lunch break!” Came from Bryan in the back room. She gave a shrug to Louise and wandered off into the staff room through the ‘Staff Only’ door. Louise grinned and shook her head. Typical Shelby. She thought as she straightened up the items on the last part of the shelf and started to make her way to the counter. “Shelby!” She muttered under her breath as she stepped into a mess of candy wrappers. She crouched down on one knee to pick them up, trying to be as quick as she could so that the customer, who was still looking around, would know there was still someone on the floor. Louise picked up the last wrapper, but was too far forward as she stood up, hitting her head on the underneath of the counter. “Ouch.” She exclaimed as she dropped the wrappers back onto the floor and rubbed her head, moving back a little so she could fully stand. As the shock subsided and gave way to a light throb, she raised her head and saw the mysterious man at the desk. “You okay?” He asked, one hand on the counter in front of her. “Yeah, thanks, just a bump. I’ll live.” She answered, blushing slightly as she realised he’d been there since she disappeared to clean up Shelby’s mess. “I’m sorry, do you need help finding something? You’ve been looking a little lost since you walked in here.” “Yeah, actually. W here’s the Tylenol?” He replied it being completely obvious that he didn’t want a conversation.

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“It’s just down here, let me show you.” Louise moved from behind the counter and took lead in showing him where the pain killer was. “If you need anything else just let me know.” She had taken a few steps back towards the counter when she heard, “Sure will. Thank you.-?” She turned to see he was looking her way, a shiver catching her off guard and making her hairs stand on end. She took a light breath before giving him a smile and finishing his sentence. “Louise.” “Vaughn.” “Well, nice to meet you Vaughn. When you’re ready, pop on over and I’ll ring them through for you.” “Likewise. An’ I sure will.” He said tipping his hat slightly before he turned back around to face the items standing neatly on the shelf. As Louise walked back to the counter, she wondered why this stranger, who she now knew was called Vaughn, had only wanted to speak to her. Usually all the guys wanted to talk the Shelby and ignore her, Shelby being the loud, chatty, eccentric one of the two, with her swishy blonde hair. And even though it was plainly dye, there was something about that color that seemed to match her features much better than her original brown. As Louise pulled out the drug store magazine from under the counter to flick through it for the tenth time that month, Shelby appeared with her coat wrapped around her. “Goin’ over the road, want anythin’ baby girl?” She said to Louise without stopping or slowing down, almost as if she was on a very important mission. “I’m good. Bought my lunch in today.” Answered Louise.

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With that, Shelby was gone out the door, giving her a backwards wave as she went. Louise watched her through the door, wincing as a horn sounded and her friend had a near miss with what looked like a Lincoln Towncar. She smiled as she shook her head and got on with flicking through the boring drug store magazine. At least it will pass some time. She thought looking at her dainty wristwatch, it being about the only gift she’d ever kept from her ex. She loved that watch so much, and it fit so perfectly, she hardly ever took it off. Deep down Louise knew that the only reason she actually kept the watch was because of that fact. Everything else from that relationship had either been sold or thrown away, even the clothes that he bought for her and the tops and jeans he thought she looked sexy in, were gone. She had a new back put on the watch, throwing the old one with the engraving ‘C & L forever in love’ down the drain as soon as she’d picked it up from the jewellers on Simmons Street. To be honest, it was the best way to help her move on. And if it hadn’t had been for Shelby being so welcoming when she had turned up on her door step that night six months ago, at 1am no less, Louise may have lost all sanity. Suddenly Louise’s thoughts were interrupted by a red box that had appeared on the counter in front of her. She looked up see the stranger, Vaughn, standing by the counter, waiting quietly for her to finish. “Hope I’m not interruptin’ anythin’.” Came the quiet yet somehow teasing Southern drawl. Louise’s heart started to beat a little faster. There’s just something about his voice… Her thoughts trailed off as she snapped herself back to reality. “Um, well, no. Not at all. I’ve read this thing about ten times through this month already.” She closed the magazine and shoved it back underneath the counter. “You find

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everything you were after?” She said, tilting her head so that she might just see what was hiding underneath that Stetson hat of his, and having no luck what so ever. “Well, you did the findin’. An’ yeah, that’s everythin’.” “That’s $8.97 then please. If you’ve got the 97c I can give you the $2 back . Less change for you, more for me.” She said cracking a smile and hoping that, just maybe, he might attempt to find the change and stay a little longer. She didn’t know why, but there was something about this man that she was drawn to. Maybe it’s just the fact that he carries off his height really well. She thought as he dug into his Wranglers’ pocket. Why the hell is my heart beating this fast? She trailed off as he pulled out a load of change, spilling it all over the counter. “I’m sure I’ve got the right amount in here some place. Would ya mind?” He asked her. “Okay, let’s have a look what you’ve got.” She smiled up at him before shifting through the coins, hoping that he couldn’t see just how nervous she was . She caught him smiling back as his mind seemed to wander, obviously catching himself and snapping back to reality when her eyes caught his. “That’s perfect, thank you. And here’s your $2.” “Thanks. Oh, an’, I like your accent.” He started to walk away, box in one hand, the other stuffing the bills into his pocket without any regard for them turning out screwed up and tatty. Louise watched him walk through the door, the heels of his dark boots clacking on the tiled floor as he went. When the door clicked back into place she let out a breath. She hadn’t even known she’d been holding it.

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“So you didn’t try to keep him here then? Thanks ever so much for the heads up. Ya know, I’d have sat on him if you were interested, just so you could make conversation.” Came the cheeky voice of the one woman she knew only too well. “You get what you were after, other than being run over I mean?” Louise asked Shelby as she hurriedly strolled over to the counter. “Well, from out there, yes I did. From in here? Hell no!” She said waving her index finger at Louise who was leaning over the counter on her forearms trying not to laugh. Shelby’s imitation of a black girl from the ghetto always got her. “Sorry missus, he didn’t look like the sort of guy that wanted to be eaten alive, that’s all.” “You never know, maybe he could’ve eaten me alive for a change.” Shelby gave Louise a wink and sauntered out back into the staff room to finish her lunch. As Louise pulled out the magazine again from underneath the counter, she shifted her weight slightly and heard a crinkle of wrappers. She sighed to herself when she realised that she’d dropped them all back on the floor when she’d hit her head. She looked down at the brightly colored heap, and taking a step back from the counter, bent down to finish cleaning up Shelby’s mess, a slight blush on her cheeks.

*

*

*

There seemed to be something about her that made Vaughn’s stomach flutter slightly, sending a shiver down his spine. It had been a long time since he had got that feeling. Too long in fact. After the last time, he hadn’t wanted to be close to anyone again. That was partly the reason why he threw himself into work, so that his weekdays and weekends would always be full. But now, as he thought back to

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Louise counting his change, he couldn’t help but wond er how her hair would look out of its pony tail. Would those light curls brush her cheeks? Would it fall graciously down her back and cup her shoulder blades? “Dang, I need to clean this truck.” He said to himself under his breath, shaking the image of her from his head. He had just left the store, and now, standing looking at his black 1979 GMC Sierra with its high lift and flood lights, he realised just how filthy it really was. All this dry weather. He thought to himself as he stuck the key in the driver’s side door and threw himself onto the custom bench seat. He never liked the two single seats that the truck had when he first bought it. He started the V8 engine and smiled to himself. This truck had always made him smile since the day he’d picked it up. It was the pick-up of his dreams as a kid, and now, well, he had it. But that wasn’t the only reason he was smiling. He looked down at the Tylenol that was sitting on the seat beside him before looking through the windscreen and setting out of the parking lot. She was nice. An’ pretty. An’ English. Heck, she was beautiful. He thought as he drove towards Hickman Avenue and out of the town centre, her coming to the front of his mind and unable to push her away. His heart started to pound in his chest as he thought about how soft her blunt accent was, her blue eyes searching under the brim of his hat to find his. He shook his head before turning his attention to his CD player. He realised that he hadn’t turned it on, which was strange as normally it was one of the first things he did. But only after listening to the four hundred and seventy six cubic inch block start and blow through those three inch straight through MagnaFlow pipes that peeked out from underneath the bed on either side, just before the rear wheels.

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Nothing could beat that sound. Well, he used to think so, but that was until he had heard her voice. He’d never really spoken to anyone, especially in a store, that he could sit and listen to all day. But for some reason that voice of hers was mesmerizing in a way that he’d never thought possible. He’d heard English accents before, but hers? It was something else. Now, where is that CD? He thought, shaking the notions out of his head for just a minute so that he could concentrate on driving and finding his CD. “Found ya! ” He exclaimed as he picked the disc up off the floor and slotted it into the player. He clicked over to ‘Lay It On Me’ which was unusual for him as normally he couldn’t stand the lyrics. He turned his attention back to the highway, tapping the steering wheel with his right hand to the beat, a smile managing to creep across his lips again. He was almost home when she came to the fore front of his mind again. Her mousey brown hair tied back into that high pony tail. Her blue eyes that looked so deep you could almost jump straight into them, their flecks of green around the pupil glinting in the sunlight that shone through the store window. His heart started to thump against his chest as he remembered how her white shirt fitted to every curve of her torso perfectly, teasing him as he was almost able to see the black camisole underneath to hide the fact, he thought, that she was wearing a black bra. Those black chinos that cupped her butt and made her legs look like they’d never end, finishing perfectly at her ankles, showing her conservative black pumps.

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He pulled up the long dirt drive to his house, almost in a daydream, thinking about his chance meeting. He wondered whether she was thinking of him as much as he was of her, or whether she could even remember him, let alone his name. He drove up to the garage and turned off the ignition, just sitting there for a minute and taking her in. He hadn’t felt like this for a long time. Hadn’t even wanted to feel like this. Not again, and certainly not now. He rested his forehead on the top of his steering wheel, the front of his Stetson almost touching the steering column. He sighed before slowly turning to look at the pain relief that was still sitting on the seat beside him, even if it had moved a little further towards the passenger door. He smiled to himself again as he leant over and picked up the box, tossing it once into the air before catching it again. He let out a breath as he picked up his keys and opened the door. After locking his truck he made his way slowly up the steps to the deck of the house, where he let himself into the living room and walked straight across to the kitchen. He sighed as he flicked on his coffee maker, the sound echoing around the walls. Lord knows I need a coffee. He thought as he threw the box of Tylenol onto the counter top opposite, his keys following.

*

*

*

“I’m so glad today is over Lou, ain’t you?” Shelby said in a sigh as she exhaled a puff of cigarette smoke. It was 4:50pm and, seeing as business hadn’t been booming all day and the last customer to enter the store had left just a little after 4pm, Bryan had decided to shut up a little earlier than usual. It was only by ten minutes, but the girls were thankful for it. “An’ I’ll tell ya what, I so need this.” Shelby

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said picking up her hand slightly before putting the white cigarette back in her mouth and taking another draw. “You not havin’ one?” “I’m good thanks Shel, still a little, you know, from that guy that came in today.” Louise said back to her friend as they both leant on the side of her truck. “Kinda knock you for six huh? I still can’t believe that he took a shine to you an’ wouldn’t even say hi to me. Well,” she took another drag, “you have got beautiful eyes if I ever did see any, an’ I ain’t kiddin’.” “Are you trying to chat me up?” Louise turned to face her and gave her a wink. “If I had any sorta chance, you know I would. That an’ I ain’t gay.” Both girls laughed and Louise gave Shelby a light punch on the top of her arm. “Right I’m off sugar. I won’t see ya tomorrow ‘til evenin’, so ya best get cooking that famous spaghetti. I’ll get the garlic bread from the store if ya want.” “Sounds like a plan. I’ll see you tomorrow night, and have a good day tomorrow without me.” “Hey, you know I’ll text ya a zillion times ‘cause I’m gonna be so bored with only Bryan for company.” Shelby rolled her eyes and jumped into her red convertible, top already down. She waved to Louise as she reversed and tore out of the parking lot like a cheetah on cocaine. Crazy, crazy, crazy. Louise thought as she scooted around the front of her truck and opened the driver side door. All because it’s a Mustang. I swear one day she is going to run over somebody if she isn’t careful. She started the truck and moved the shifter into ‘Reverse’, looking into her mirrors as she took more care in moving out of her parking space. When she was far enough out, she shifted her automatic transmission into ‘Drive’ and moved off down Highway 203 towards the newer estate just off Reese Avenue.

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Vaughn. Was what popped into her head almost straight away on her journey home. Vaughn. Shelby had nicknamed him the ‘moody cowboy’ and had been teasing her throughout the rest of the afternoon. Louise didn’t mind too much as she knew that she didn’t mean anything by it, but still, she couldn’t help but get that funny feeling in the pit of her stomach whenever she heard his name. Vaughn. There it was again. I think I’m just still on the rebound. She thought to herself as she tried to concentrate on the traffic that was in front of her. I shouldn’t be feeling like this. She was hoping that she’d miss rush hour, but it really did lo ok like it had started early today. It didn’t help that the kids at school where coming out after football and cheerleading practise either. There seemed to be distracted drivers everywhere and she was no exception. She just couldn’t seem to take her mind off him. The fact that she had only seen a glimpse of what she thought were deep brown eyes didn’t help the fact. She was well and truly a sucker for tall mysterious men, the sort of men that you never see apart from in your own fantasies. That or they turned out to be total monsters. Louise’s heart skipped a beat as she thought about the conversation they had had at the counter when he spilt all his change on there for her to count. Those abs. She thought as she remembered how tight his black t-shirt was to his chest and how the muscles on his arms bulged slightly from underneath the short sleeves. Her heart raced as she watched him walk towards the door again in her mind, and failed to see the brake lights of the truck in front until it was too late. Her heart jumped as her eyes widened. She hit down hard on the brake pedal and prayed that the discs she’d replaced a week ago would stop her 3,500lb pickup. She closed her eyes and gripped onto the steering wheel as tight as she could, before being jolted forward slightly as the truck came to a complete stop. She

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opened her eyes slowly to see the vehicle in front only inches away from her front bumper. After she let out the breath she was holding, Louise noticed that a deer was to blame for the near accident. It waltzed slowly across as if nothing had happened, stopping to look at the lady in the vehicle in front and then at Louise, it’s eyes haunting. Louise watched it continue its journey across the highway, her heart still pounding in her chest. When it had gone, the line of traffic started to move again, slowly at first, then picking up speed again to the national limit. That will teach me to daydream whilst driving. Louise thought, and so decided to put on the stereo instead, Vaughn being hidden away at the back of her mind for the time being. Until later anyway. As she pulled up onto her driveway, switching off her stereo, she thought about what to make herself that evening for supper, and whether that chicken she had in the refrigerator really was worth cooking. But, even as she locked her truck and turned the key in her front door, her mind wasn’t on food . She was thinking about the ‘moody cowboy’.

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Farm Girl

Her alarm rang out into her bedroom, the early morning sun just creeping in through the gaps in the curtains. She woke drearily and rolled over to give her alarm a good old whack, not realising that her cat, Dakota, was lying fast asleep. Was being the operative word. She jumped down off the bed with a bump and scooted out the slightly open bedroom door. “Sorry Dakkie.” Came the half asleep voice of Louise, still trying to reach the alarm. After throwing a couple of pillows out of the way and searching with her hand, she pushed the button on top to make it stop. She looked at her watch and it was 6am. Jerry had wanted her to be a little early today so that she could have some breakfast and meet the guys she’d be working with. He’d also rang her on Thursday just to let her know that he had arranged for one of them to show her the ropes this weekend, and, seeing as she didn’t know how to, to ride a horse. According to Jerry this could take a couple of weeks, or a couple of months, depending on how well she could pick up the skills, and as he so rightly admitted, there wasn’t much to it. Unless of course, you wanted to master it at its highest level. You just had to trust your horse and not be afraid of the worst, which was, technically, falling off. With a groan and a stretch, Louise flung back the covers and dangled her legs across the side of the bed, slowly standing up. She moved over to the window to open the curtains slightly and let a little more light in, not just so she could see what she was doing, but to help wake her up. She’d also set the coffee machine to start bubbling away about now so that she would have a beautiful cup of coffee before she left for the Calahees’.

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After peering outside for what felt like half an hour, Louise made her way over to a set of mirrored doors. Slowly sliding them apart, she smiled as she exposed her newly installed walk in closet which, still needed to be sorted out. The automatic ceiling lights buzzed on as she carried on walking and opened another mirrored door that was at the back of the closet. This one lead to her very private en suite that looked out over the yard at the back of the house. It wasn’t much of a yard, but at least the trees at the bottom stopped neighbours prying. The en suite had been an ingenious idea by none other than Shelby. When Louise had booked an appointment to see the house a few months ago, Shelby had insisted that she go with her. The house structure was already built, but the new owner had chance to put their own internal design into the property, all for the advertised price, so long as it didn’t affect any weight bearing walls. That was what had attracted Louise in the first place, if she was honest. After moving everything of hers from Shelby’s once she’d picked up the keys, both of the girls sat on the living room floor and munched through a large bbq chicken and cheese pizza from the local grocery store. Once she’d finished in the bathroom, she shut the door behind her and started to scour the racks and floor for something to wear. Eventually, she picked up her medium blue, straight leg denim jeans and an old long sleeved blue and grey checked shirt that had thin purple stripes running alongside the blue. Next she started to rummage around in one of her cardboard boxes that had slightly been unpacked, and pulled out a pair of black cowboy boots. These were some of her favourite, and were the most comfortable pair of boots she owned. They were soft leather with removable boot straps and silver toe tips. The straps had a

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metal chain that ran underneath the shoe, just before the heel, and the strap that wrapped around the front had metal star emblems on. She had paid $289 for these boots when she had moved to Elba three years ago, and they had never let her down. As Shelby said, well worth the dollar paid. She quickly got changed, throwing her nightwear underneath one of her pillows. It was only a camisole and underpants, but Louise had never been able to fall asleep wearing long pyjamas or nothing at all. She liked to be covered. She made sure she looked acceptable, throwing her hair up into a bun before running down the stairs with her boots in her hands, startling Dakota again as she lay, front legs outstretched, on the middle step. “Sorry baby.” She called after her ginger cat as she bounded down the stairs, taking a left at the bottom and skidding into the living room. When Louise finally reached the kitchen, she threw her boots down by the island and fetched a mug from one of the top kitchen cupboards. She was careful not to knock the pistons that were sitting in a couple of boxes on the counter top, a dirty rag thrown on top. She smiled as she saw that the timer had worked, as the coffee machine was bubbling away and it had nearly finished brewing. She put her mug down on the side and filled it with two brown sugars and a little bit of milk. She then reached up for a flapjack to gnaw on before replacing the milk back in the fridge. She was having breakfast at the Calahee ranch, but she needed something just to keep her going until then. She was expected on the ranch at 6:45am, so that she could have breakfast and be ready to start work around 7:30am, meeting around the fire pit in the yard. Right now, as she was just getting her cup of coffee together, it was 6:20am. She

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gave the contents of her mug a quick stir, pulled on her boots and within seconds, was out of the front door locking it behind her with one hand, her cup of coffee in the other. It wasn’t a long drive to the ranch, all of about fifteen minutes, but Louise had her foot to the floor none the less, the V8 rumble making her smile. There wasn’t much on the highway, and soon enough, she arrived at the ranch and parked her truck next to another Chevrolet truck that was sitting in front of the house. She jumped out of her pickup and started to make her way to the front door when Jerry appeared, cup of steaming hot coffee in his hand. Jerry was a nice enough man, late 50’s and liked a drink of beer, which you could tell from his alcohol created pot belly, wasn’t just the odd one. He had been more than welcoming when Louise had met him last, and had a wonderful attitude to everything. His work philosophy was purely ‘work hard, play hard’ and from how he described the ranch, it definitely seemed that way. He was a religious man, and his wife was also, but this didn’t stop him working on a Sunday. It just meant that work finished early so that they could get ready and attend the late worship at the Church of Christ, which was at 5pm. They always got there at 4:30pm so that they could meet friends before they went in. “Hey there, just in time. You want pancakes or French toast? Jessie’s doin’ both, so don’t matter which one it is ya fancy.” He said, taking a long sip. “Erm, I think I’ll try the French toast.” Louise replied as she neared the door. “That’s just fine. Now get your butt on in here, there’s a coffee with your name on it. An’ don’t worry ‘bout takin’ off them boots. Seem pretty clean, but this part o’ the house don’t stand for no occasion, if ya know what I mean.” And with that, Louise

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followed him into the house, still feeling a little out of place, but hoping that she’d soon fit in like part of the furniture. “Well now, hey there sugar. Got you a steaming cup o’ coffee right here.” Jessie-Lou exclaimed as soon as she saw Louise. “It’s so nice to finally have another girl ‘round.” She said as Louise walked over to the counter in the open plan kitchen where her coffee was sitting. “Thanks Jessie-Lou. Ran out of the house this morning and spilt half my coffee down my truck. Thank God it missed me.” “These things happen’ darlin’.” Was what she said in reply. She moved a little closer to Louise and whispered, “Still, it’s nice to have another female abouts this place. Cuts through the at mosphere o’ testosterone, if ya know what I mean.” “Oh, indeed I do.” Louise took a sip of her coffee, a warm smile creeping across her eyes as she walked around the counter to join Jerry and another man who were talking at the dining table. The other man, she could only guess, was one of the guys that worked on the ranch. And he’s not too bad looking either. “Hey.” He said looking over as she sat down, his silver gaze catching her off guard slightly. He was wearing a long sleeve, red plaid shirt and had short brown hair. Sitting next to him on the table was a chocolate colored Resistol cowboy hat that she knew was his. “I hear from my friend Jerry here that you start today. My name’s Matthew. Matthew MacLewland, but everybody calls me Matt. An’ I guess you’re Louise.” “Yeah, that’s me. Nice to meet you.” She smiled as she reached her hand over the table, him taking it in a single shake. “Nice to meet you too. I also hear that Jerry has set you up with one o’ the other guys, show ya the ropes an’ stuff. Not really much to learn, just need to get the

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hang o’ things.” He looked over to Jerry, giving him a light elbow before moving his eyes back to hers. “Shame he didn’t pick me, but I’m sure there’s gonna be somethin’ you need me for anyhow.” He gave Louise a smile as he took a slurp of his coffee, which looked to her like it was running low. “Breakfast, comin’ up.” Jessie-Lou said, bringing over two plates of French toast with streaky bacon on the side. “Anythin’ else y’all want?” “Just some more coffee please Jessie-Lou, I’m runnin’ a little low.” Matt replied, and Jessie-Lou bought over the jug of still hot coffee, putting it in the middle of the table amongst the maple syrup, sugar jar, salt and pepper and honey pot. Matt and Louise tucked into their breakfast as they heard another vehicle pull up to the house. Jerry excused himself as he got up and disappeared outside just as Louise heard another three voices that were new to her. She guessed that they were the other guys that she would be working with. None of them came into the house but instead must have walked in the opposite direction towards the yard, their voices disappearing with their footsteps. Louise looked at her watch and noticed that it was 7:15am. She watched Matt throw his used napkin on his plate and pick up his hat. He thanked Jessie-Lou and ran out of the door supposedly to meet the others. Louise hurriedly ate the rest that was on her plate, not noticing the rumble of another pickup truck pulling up outside. She put her napkin on her plate along with her used cutlery and thanked Jessie-Lou before getting up and making her way to the door. “Now, don’t ya let those boys get the better o’ you honey, an’ have a good day.” Jessie-Lou called after her, and she gave her a wave as she wondered out of the house.

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She started to make her way towards the yard to the right when, suddenly, she had an urge to turn around and look at a black truck that was parked by itself. Obviously whoever was driving it had only just arrived, but Louise couldn’t help but think she’d seen it somewhere before. Those chrome spot lights on the back roll bar looked rather familiar, but she couldn’t place where she had seen it. After a second or so of thinking it over, she shook her head and turned back around towards the yard where she could just see a small group of people sitting on logs at the far end. She clambered over the wooden gate and made her way over to them, trying to hurry, but not making it obvious. “Hey, Louise. Saved ya a seat!” Shouted Matt, patting an empty place next to him on a log as she closed in on the gang. She could see that they were all sitting in a square that was surrounding a fire pit. As she sat down she saw that three men were sitting on a log to her left and there was an old bbq grill to the right. “Jerry does bbq’s for lunch some days, hence the pit. This is where we meet in the mornin’, so if you can’t find anyone, we’re probably here. That there is Dale,” he carried on, pointing to a slim blonde wearing a sand colored cowboy hat that was curved up at the sides, who was laughing at something one of the others had said, “An’ this joker here is Terry.” He pointed to a young man with long black hair and a small pot belly you could just make out underneath his shirt. “He’s the youngest o’ the lot of us, aside from Tyler.” Tyler had short brown hair that looked almost ginger in the sunlight, and, although he had a slim frame, seemed to have rather muscular arms. “An’ if you’re wonderin’ Tyler does most o’ the heavy liftin’ ‘round here.” He nudged her slightly, a glint in his eyes she just couldn’t help but smile at. “I wasn’t, but thanks for the information all the same.” Louise responded giving Matt a nudge. She glanced back at the men clowning around, when she

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noticed Jerry sit down on the log directly in front of them. “Isn’t there five of you guys, obviously not including Jerry?” She asked tilting her head a little, trying not to make her slight confusion obvious to the rest. “Now then, that guy is your mentor for next week or so. That is, if he ever does decide to-” At that moment the last member of the group hitched his legs over the log and sat down directly in front of Louise. He was wearing dark boots with silver spurs, black jeans and a long sleeved black snap button shirt. It looked like he was wearing a white t-shirt underneath, it just showing as he had the top two buttons undone. Louise couldn’t help but frown slightly as his black Stetson with curved sides looked very familiar. Her pulse started to race again, and she hoped the others hadn’t noticed. Oh my gosh. It’s him. She thought, trying to calm herself but knowing she couldn’t. That’s who’s truck that is. “-show up. Louise, this is Vaughn.” Matt finished his sentence as Vaughn lifted his head. He gave Louise a slight nod along with a quick smile that was obviously just for her. “Hey.” She said back, slight questioning in her voice, but no one really seemed to notice the tone. “Right, now that y’all are here,” Jerry started while looking around the group. “Let’s get this show on the road shall we? Not much really to do today seein’ as you boys have worked so hard this week. Just got some odds an’ ends to tie up ready for next week. First of all, you four boys,” he pointed to Matt, Terry, Tyler and Dale, “can go an’ get those cattle sheds cleaned out. Then I want Matt an’ Terry to move them

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cows to the next pasture. While they’re doin’ that it’s onto egg collecting for Tyler and Dale.” “Awww, c’mon boss. You know I can’t stand those dang chickens. They seem to hate me or somethin’.” Moaned Tyler. “Hey, no excuse. If you don’t like chickens, don’t work on a farm.” Jerry said back to Tyler, leaning in a little closer to him as he did, the others trying to contain a giggle. He carried on for another ten minutes telling the group about what was needed from them that day, and lastly, turned to Louise and Vaughn. “Now, Louise. Vaughn is gonna be your mentor for a while, gonna get you out with the horses to start. Get ‘em mucked out an’ talkin’ ya through all the tack an’ what’s what. Nothin’ much more for y’all to do ‘cause that should take most of the da y. You may even get some ridin’ in.” Jerry smiled as he stood up from his seat, signalling the end of the morning meeting. “Right then, y’all get on to work.” Jerry finished as he started to walk back to the house. Matt and Terry stood up and started to move down the yard towards the cow sheds first, Terry giving him a friendly punch in the arm before looking back at Louise. Tyler and Dale slowly followed, giving her a slight wave before sprinting to catch up with the other two, laughing as they went. That just left her and Vaughn. “You ready?” Vaughn said as he got up from the log and walked over to her. She watched as he moved almost effortlessly towards her, his eyes still hidden underneath his hat. He stopped momentarily as he drew up level with her, watching as she pushed herself off the log. “Yeah sure.” Louise smiled as she joined Vaughn in a steady walk to the stables. She put her hands in her front pockets and tried to control her racing pulse.

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“How long have you been working here?” It was all she could think to say, cursing herself for not being able to find anything else. “Um, ‘bout six years now. Worked on a couple other ranches in Elba an’ ‘round Enterprise before I came here. This one sorta stuck.” He replied, it more than obvious that he had said more than he should have. “Oh right.” She answered, not quite knowing how to respond. “So. Where are the stables?” “They’re just ‘round this way.” He said as they passed by an opened sided barn that housed some farming equipment for the tractors. Louise glanced at the machinery, not quite believing just how big everything was when you actually got up close to it. “How many horses do you have?” Was her next question as she turned to look at him from the side, hands still in her pockets. “Well, there’s six at the minute. They’re all American quarter horses, for obvious reasons, but I’ll get teachin’ ya terminology later. Basically we’ve a couple o’ big guys, three medium sized an’ one smaller one. She’ll be your first. When you’re ready, obviously.” He said, not looking back at her. They carried on walking, neither of them speaking for what seemed like an eternity. They had rounded about two more buildings and Louise was starting to feel a little lost. Finally they stopped walking, and Vaughn pulled open the door to the stables where there were eight stalls, four on either wall, with what looked like the tack station down at the other end. “Wow.” Gasped Louise taking her hands out of her pockets and placing them on her waist. “This place is bigger than my house.” She walked further into the

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stables and couldn’t help but look around in awe. It had a high vaulted ceiling with wooden beams running down the middle and skylights in the roof. “It’s amazing.” “Pretty impressive ain’t it?” It was a rhetorical question and he joined her looking up into the eaves as he walked over to the first horse. It was brown in color, and as he stroked it down the white stripe that ran down its head he said, “This guy is Chute. He’s Matt’s horse. Uses him in the rodeos.” He walked to the next horse in line and did the same. “This buckskin colored gal is our smallest, she’s called Hyco.” He turned to face Louise, her hands still on her waist as she watched him. “Then there’s this big guy here.” He walked across the stables to the next stall and patted the chestnut horse on the side of his neck. “He’s called Redeye. Was born with a blood shot eye, never quite thought he’d recover, hence the name. This boy over here,” he moved down again and stroked the next horse, “is called Levi. He’s mid-sized too. The last mid-sized quarter is Logan, this guy right here.” He gave the bay colored horse a small pat on the side of its neck too, the horse nudging him away slightly. “He’s tricky, so be careful ‘round him.” “Right.” Louise said in response, trying to absorb everything she was being told. She walked across the stable to the last stall, where a large black horse stood with his head sticking way over the side of the gate, almost as if he couldn’t wait for Vaughn to reach him. “Who’s this guy?” “This big guy is Bullitt.” Vaughn said looking only at the horse as he came over with a smile, lifting his head slightly to see him. He gave Bullitt a big old pat on the side of his neck, and he replied with a happy nod. “This fella’s mine. Let’s no one else ride him. Jerry lets me keep him here, easier that way.” He gave his horse a strong rub and walked a couple of feet back to where Louise was standing.

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“You can tell he’s yours. Just the way he looks at you is enough.” Louise dropped her hands from her waist without looking at him. Instead she kept her eyes on Bullitt, afraid that Vaughn might see that she was impressed by his affection for the stallion. “He’s a good horse.” Was all he said before starting to move over to the tack. “An’ this here is where we keep all the tack. Most places have it as a separate room, but this place is big enough to have it all as one.” Louise made her way over to the huge array of shelves that held beautiful Western saddles sitting next to saddle blankets, each with the name of the horse and rider underneath. There were hanging brackets that held reins and head gear, again with labels on the wall underneath the brackets. To the side of the tack were numerous brushes and tools, obviously to keep the horses clean, tidy and up to scratch. “Well, I must say this is very neat and tidy.” She said, looking around, still taking in the grandeur of the stable itself. And beautiful in a strange way. “Gotta be.” Vaughn said in reply, turning around to face her, a glint in his eyes. “If it ain’t, we can’t ride an’ then we can’t work. Simple as that.” He nodded his head as if agreeing with himself. “Used to keep them flung over the side of the stalls, but stuff gets messy like that.” He looked to the tack before moving back to her. “Jerry said that I’m to show you the ropes ‘round this part, so, first, let’s start with muckin’ out, an’ then we can get on to the tack. I’ll get ya goin’ on some basic trivia while we’re at it.” “Okay.” She said giving him a quick smile. “I’m all yours.” She winced slightly. You idiot Louise.

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“Well, technically speakin’ you are.” He walked across to where the mucking out equipment was, looking back at her and giving her a quick smile. “For now anyhow.” A slight chill crept up her back, giving her goose bumps along her arms. She had to try hard to keep her composure so that she could smile back. She just hoped that he hadn’t noticed the shiver. Vaughn got to showing and explaining to her how to muck out the horses and also mentioned that once the others had done in the cattle shed, Matt and Terry would be along to collect theirs. He also showed her where to dump the muck after successfully clearing out the first stall, which was in a metal storage container out the rear of the stables. It was kept there ready for when the land needed to be fertilized, which would be done using one of the tractors.

*

*

*

Matt and Terry arrived a few minutes after they had finished the last stall, talking between themselves. Terry was laughing at something Matt had said as they reached Vaughn, who was making sure Bullitt had a fuss and a good brush while Louise was outside cleaning off the equipment. “Man, y’all are quick.” Terry said looking around the stables. “She’s a quick learner.” Vaughn replied, nodding his head over to Louise, hoping she’d caught the gesture. “Really?” Matt said, wiggling his eyebrows under his hat, Terry trying to hold in a small laugh as he did.

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“Y’all want these guys out or what?” Came back from Vaughn, hands on his belt and not being too impressed by the joke. “Can’t move cattle without a horse Vaughn, you should know that.” Matt said moving over towards Chute’s saddle equipment, bit and reins. Vaughn held his gaze as he moved, almost as if challenging him to say what he so obviously wanted to. He watched as Matt raised his brows and turned his head back to the task in hand, Terry making his way over to grab everything for Redeye. Vaughn watched the two men secure their spurs on the back of each boot before he noticed Louise walking towards him. He watched as Matt lifted his gaze to hers with a light smile, dropping his right foot off the stool it had been resting on, a pang of jealousy hitting his stomach. As Louise came to a stop and leant against Bullitts stall, arms crossed and her shirt rolled up around her elbows, Vaughn let out the breath he’d been holding. She stood with her foot flat on the post holding the door, and his attention was no longer on Matt and Terry. “Let’s make our way outside while these pair get sorted. They’ll wanna be quick, so we may as well stay out o’ the way for a minute or two.” She looked good. Very good. But they needed to move. He knew that if he stayed in the same place as Matt for any more than a few minutes, he might just say something he’d regret. “I take it you guys don’t get along?” She said as they walked out into the morning sunlight. “Some days we do, some days we don’t. How it is sometimes.” He said ushering her around to the side of the stables where they sat on a couple of up turned barrels.

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“Ah, so it’s like that then?” She said leaning slightly forward, her forearms resting on her thighs as she shifted her feet slightly. He watched her as she lifted the front of her boots up, obviously admiring the silver tips in the sunlight. He shifted his hat so it dropped down in front of his eyes a little, and he knew she’s be wondering if he could see her. “Nice boots.” He said leaning back against the wall of the stable and crossing his arms loosely. He outstretched his legs as she turned to look at him, his left ankle crossing over the right as her gaze fell on his boots. “Thanks.” Was all she said as her gaze seemed to snap back up to his face. “Nice smile too.” “Um, thanks.” She said again, moving her gaze back to her boots as he watched a slight flush fill her cheeks. “No problem.” It might have been a casual tone, but his heart was certainly beating fast. A lot faster than he thought it would. “Y’all havin’ fun out here?” Came a voice that Vaughn probably knew better than anyone else. He saw Louise lift her head to see Matt, Terry following up behind. “He best be gettin’ you out on Hyco sometime today, then I can show ya how to really ride.” Matt gave her a quick wink as he trotted a little closer, and it turned Vaughn’s stomach to see that look in those grey eyes of his. Louise got up from the barrel she was sitting on and walked over to Chute, giving him a hard brush down the side of his neck. “We’ll see. This is about as close to a horse as I’ve ever been so, we’ll see.” “I’m sure you’ll be just fine.” Vaughn just catching it as Matt whispered in her ear.

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“Like I said, we’ll see.” She said, stepping back a little. Either Matt had made her feel a little uncomfortable, or she could feel his eyes on her. “Alright then.” Matt lifted his Resistol off his head in a wave before kicking the horse into a gallop and riding off up the field. Terry smiled before he followed close behind with a loud “Yee-haw!” Redeye rising up on his hind legs before sprinting off up the slight hill towards a gate at the end. “Show offs.” Vaughn breathed before standing up and walking back into the stables. He knew Louise was watching the two riders and thought it best to let her catch up in her own time.. “Can’t you tell Matt rides in rodeos?” He pronounced sarcastically when she appeared. It was a rhetorical question, and it was perfectly obvious that she knew it was. “Right then, what are you teaching me next?” She asked. “Um, let’s grab a couple o’ Bullitts saddle blankets an’ we can sit down on these here barrels, tell you a bit ‘bout the ridin’ style an’ such.” He made his way over to Bullitt’s part of the shelving unit and fetched a couple of dark blankets. “I know it all sounds borin’ but it’s all general stuff ya really need to know.” He put the blankets over each barrel top, pushing them against the side of Bullitts stall so they faced the back exit. Louise sat down slightly facing Vaughn as he leaning back against the stall, legs outstretch again with his left ankle over his right. “Right, firstly I’ll tell you ‘bout the horses we use. All the horses on this ranch, and most other workin’ horses, are American quarter horses. Reason why we use ‘em is ‘cause they’re quick, powerful an’ have great stamina, which we need from day to day. An’ as ya can probably guess from his big guy,” he looked up at Bullitt

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who’s nose had appeared over the top of the side of the stall, “a huge willin’ to please.” He looked back at Louise before lowering his head, his eyes meeting hers just as he registered the strong pulse in the hollow of her neck. He smiled and carried on. “We tend to measure horses by hand height, an’ just to get you on the ball, Hyco is about fourteen an’ Bullitt’s a little over sixteen.” Louise nodded as he explained, it bringing a slight smile to his eyes that he hoped she hadn’t caught. “So what’s the difference between a horse you’d use for a rodeo , like roping, and ones for sprinting?” She asked. “The larger, slimmer horses are normally used for sprints ‘cause they’re more powerful. The more compact an’ agile horses are used in herdin’ an’ timed rodeo events ‘cause they tend to be quicker ‘round obstacles.” “Makes sense.” She shifted slightly on the barrel. “Pretty much. A lot o’ stuff surroundin’ the workin’s of a ranch makes sense.” Vaughn smiled up at her and she caught his eyes again. Vaughn noticed her look down at her watch and check the time, frowning when she realised it was obviously later than she had expected. “Time sure flies don’t it?” “Surprisingly so.”

*

*

*

“How’d ya like your first cowboy lunch then?” Jerry said as he happily cleaned off the bbq with a piece of wire wool.

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“Well Jerry, I must say that in the whole half a day I’ve been here I’ve eaten some of the best food I’ve ever had.” Louise said as she stood, handing him back the plate she’d used with a smile. “Dang girl, you ain’t had much luck with food then.” Tyler shouted over, Jerry throwing a damp cloth at him to shut him up. “Hey, was a joke.” He said as he raised his arm to stop it hitting his face. “You know I love your cookin’ Jerry.” “Yeah, shame it ain’t a patch on Jessie-Lou’s.” Said Dale, picking up the cloth and throwing it back, Jerry catching it in his hand with a laugh. “No one is a patch on my wife when it comes to food, y’all know that.” He said, the laugh still in his voice. For lunch they had all gathered back around the fire pit that was now lit, Jerry putting on some fresh steak from the store house, and Jessie-Lou having cooked some fries for them all in the kitchen. The lunch breaks weren’t usually done during the week, so Dale had told her, but Jerry and Jessie-Lou made an exception at the weekends. They appreciated that the men worked as hard as they did and so a steak lunch was a treat for them all. Matt and Terry had ridden back on their horses, tying their reins around one of the branches about fifty feet away from the pit, and as before, Vaughn sat next to Jerry glancing over at Louise from time to time. She had realised he’d been watching her the moment they had sat down. Her hair had started to work its way loose from its bun and the odd wave falling into her face seemed to have made him a little curious. She had brushed the loose hair back behind her ears, catching his intense brown gaze as she did. She hadn’t had attention like this for a long time, and she felt a little light headed every time he caught her off guard.

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“You gonna get this girl on a horse today or what?” Was what came from Jerry as he looked around to Vaughn who had moved slightly. He was now leaning over with his elbows on his knees, hands clasped together and looking into the fire. It was almost as if he was in a trance. “Course I am.” He looked at Louise but directed the words at Jerry. “Needed to give her the necessary information first. Don’t want her gettin’ up there, havin’ no clue an’ hurtin’ herself.” “Good.” Jerry replied, and carried on cleaning the grill. Louise watched as Matt excused himself to answer his cell phone, walking down towards the house and out of the way. She turned back to Vaughn and smiled a thank you, acknowledging the fact that his sentence was an underhanded way of saying he cared about her, even if it was only for her safety. “Hey, he’s takin’ the piss outta you.” Terry shouted over to Louise, Vaughn snapping his gaze to him. She was a little shocked at the fire in his eyes and knew something was brewing. “No need to look at me like that man, I was just sayin’ is all.” “So you’d rather her jump up on that horse then Terry, that what you’re sayin’?” Vaughn directed it straight at him, the fire coming out in his voice. “No, I jus-“ “Now, boys.” Jerry said, swinging around to confront them head on. “We’ve just had a nice lunch, let’s try an’ keep it that way. An’ Vaughn’s right, ain’t havin’ no one gettin’ up on a horse without knowin’ what to expect.” “I ain’t sayin’ that, but there ain’t no better way to learn than to get on up there boss, ya know that. So what if she falls off, we all have an’ still do.” Terry turned back to Vaughn with a sarcastic glint in his eyes. “Unless o’ course, your names Vaughn.”

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“I ain’t havin’ her break her leg Terry, what kinda selfish sonofabitch d’ya take me for?” Vaughn raised his voice a slight bit more, causing Matt, who was still by the gate, to turn around to see what was going on. Louise’s heart rate quickened as she looked on in shock, both men springing to their feet and standing less than a foot away from each other. “She ain’t gonna break her leg. She’s a tough one an’ you know it. You can’t tell me ya think she ain’t capable.” Terry tilted his head up slightly, looking at him square in the eyes. “I ain’t takin’ that chance. Would o’ thought you’d be thinkin’ that way too, or y’all forgotten what happened a couple o’ years ago, huh ?” “That was then an’ ain’t nothin’ to do with now an’ you know it.” Terry shoved him a little too hard, almost sending Vaughn backwards into the log he had been sitting on not five minutes before. Everything fell silent for a second or two and all Louise could hear was the pounding of her heart in her chest. Suddenly, Vaughn launched himself at Terry, Matt appearing from nowhere and just managing to hold him back. “You’re treadin’ on fine ice.” Vaughn pointed at Terry, Matt still holding him firmly to the spot. “So what if I am?” Terry smirked as he walked back a few steps. It was obvious that Matt wouldn’t be able to hold Vaughn back if he wasn’t letting him, and the expression in Terry’s eyes said he knew that too. “Terry, house, now.” Jerry boomed as he threw the wire wool down onto the grill. “An’ you.” He turned to Vaughn, lowering his voice as he walked past him. “You should know better.” He carried on walking towards the house before turning back to

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everyone around the fire pit. “Now y’all get back to work, an’ no more’s to be said ‘bout this.” Matt finally let go of Vaughn, both of them exchanging looks that could kill. Matt started to make his way over to Chute, breaking eye contact and untying the rein and mounting his horse. Louise watched as he rode off in the direction of the cattle, Dale in hot pursuit on Redeye as Tyler made his way across the yard on foot. Louise stood where she was, still in shock with what she’d just witnessed. She watched Vaughn as he stared down at his boots and took in a deep breath as if it was just what he needed to bring him back down to earth. “I take it you really don’t get on with those two.” She said lightly, trying to break the ice. She didn’t quite feel angry about what had happened, even though she had felt awkward. But seeing his eyes meet hers, she knew he felt bad. “No. An’ sorry.” He said in reply as he slowly walked over to her, kicking some dust into the fire as he did. “Really. I am.” He stopped directly in front of her, just closer than a foot away. Her pulse quickened as his brown eyes met hers. She rested her hand on the side of the grill as she held his gaze for what seemed like forever. He knew that he’d made her feel awkward and she could sense it. But there was something else in his eyes other than guilt that she couldn’t quite put her finger on. “Okay.” She said, her smile not quite lighting up her face. She was still looking into his dark eyes, mesmerized, and the world seemed to fall away slightly. “Okay.” It was almost a whisper. He was still holding her gaze as if looking for something. “Erm, shall we?” It barely came out as she pointing in the direction of the stables. Jesus Louise. How obvious?

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“Yeah, sure.” He waited another second or so before starting to walk back towards the horses. Louise walked by his side, both of them silent again. As they reached the stable doors, Louise finally found something to say. “I haven’t seen a day this nice for a while.” “Shame you were stuck inside that day I came to the store. Was a pretty nice day then too.” He didn’t look at her, but instead opened Hycos’ stall. “So.” He turned back to Louise, who was standing watching him. “Ya feel ready?”

*

*

*

“You swear ya never been on a horse ‘fore now?” Vaughn asked as Louise bought Hyco back around to his side. He grabbed the ring that was resting on the side of the horse’s mouth, attached to the bit that went between her top and bottom jaw. They had been out in the make shift arena for almost two hours now, and Louise had picked most of the basics up without a hitch. She was really impressed with herself, whether he was or not. “Nope, never. Friends had horses back in England when I was younger, but all I ever did was watch. Never quite liked the idea of how they ride over there.” She leant forward to give Hyco a pat on her neck and added, looking back towards Vaughn, “Everything seemed backwards, and I could never seem to get my head around it. Western makes so much more sense.” “I guess there’s that snob factor that’s over there too, huh?” He said and she just managed to catch him wince.

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“Well, yeah. There’s that too. And some of the outfits just make you want to laugh. Much rather ride in jeans and a t-shirt any day of the week.” She replied, sitting back up straight and resting her right arm on the pommel of the saddle. “I must say though, I mean, I don’t wanna offend you or anythin’, but ain’t people over in England pretty much stuck up their own? I mean, Europeans ain’t exactly the nicest.” He said stroking Hycos neck. She noticed him wince again, making it completely obvious that he wasn’t quite sure how she’d react to what could be classed as a rather personal question. “Honestly? Yeah, they are. Most of them are rude, unlike people over here. I’ve been officially an American for over ten years now and wouldn’t dream of ever going back there.” She wanted to say more, but thought she’d save it for another time. She didn’t want to give him her whole life story, not y et anyway. “Proud American then?” He said, as he looked back up at her. “Of course. I’d change my accent if I could, and I can’t say I haven’t tried.” She smiled back as he let go of the horse and walked to her side. “Don’t. An’ wait here.” Vaughn said before jogging back to the stables, leaving Louise staring after him a little stunned. She’d never seen him move faster than his usual pace before, and she must admit, as his held his Stetson down to keep it on his head, he looked pretty good. She waited for a minute or so before giving the rein a slight tug, Hyco turning around to face the stables. What is he doing? She squinted before a smile lit her eyes at the sound of horseshoes on the concrete floor of the stables. She watched Vaughn reappear as he trotted over on Bullitt, looking like the perfect cowboy. Her heart skipped an unexpected beat as he drew closer, lifting his head and catching her eyes with a grin.

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“I hate being short.” He said cheekily as he drew up level with Louise, her now having to look up at him again as Bullitt was a big horse. “Let’s see how your control is when ya got another horse next to you.” Louise gently kicked Hyco into a steady walk, Vaughn sticking by her side on Bullitt as they went around the enclosure together. He gave her hints and tips, helping her with balance and posture when she needed it. “I can’t believe how easy it is.” Louise chuckled as they came to a stop again, Vaughn swinging Bullitt around Hyco so that he was facing Louise. “She’s an easy horse to ride.” He smiled. “Basic’re pretty simple, but masterin’ the art is the hard part.” “Personal experience?” Louise saw his eyes turn distant as his jaw clenched. “Could say that.” He turned away and looked out into the distance. “I guess we should get these two back so we can get them all into the pasture.” “Sure. I’m sorry if I-” His gaze returned to hers. “No problem.” She started to head back, leaving Vaughn to make sure the gate to the arena was closed properly as they left.

*

*

*

“Now let’s have a look what’s under this hood.” Said Matt as he walked around the front of Louise’s pickup truck . “Ain’t seen one o’ these for years.” “Fell in love with her as soon as I saw her. Had the bench seat reupholstered, and I found an old small block in a totalled ‘67 Camaro down at the junk yard, so I rebuilt it and transplanted it before I drove her. She had to be perfect, you know?

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And I didn’t want to keep the original straight six.” Louise put her hand through one of the ovals in the front of the hood, releasing the catch. She let the pressurised air struts lift it for her, keeping it suspended when it reached its peak. “Oo-ee! ” Came from Dale as he leant in to look at the chromed 350 cubic inch block, the others giving whistles as they did the same. “You never-” Tyler started. “Hey, there’s a lot you guys don’t know about me.” Louise chuckled as she stepped back a little from the engine bay looking rather smug. She let the men admire the fully loaded Edelbrock upgrades and extras, proud that her work had bought hearts to their eyes. It wasn’t often that someone appreciated her work, and it felt good to be the centre of attention for once. “Dang! ” Terry exclaimed. “There ain’t no way you can know more ‘bout engines than me.” “Well, what d’ya know Terry?” Matt said, making the others burst into laughter as Louise made her way over to the driver’s side. “Watch your fingers boys.” She said as she put her keys in the ignition and fired her up. She gave the gas pedal a little tap, the roar of the engine making Tyler jump. “What the hell horse power is this thing?” Dale said, finally taking his head out from under the hood and looking back at Louise. She was making her way back to the front of her truck. “She’s got around three hundred and forty break to the rear and about three hundred and eighty seven foot pounds of torque. To be honest I was going to buy a crate engine, but thought I’d rather do it all myself.” She crossed her arms over her chest as she came to a stop behind them. “Basically she had a new intake manifold,

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Performer 600 carburettor, triple chrome plated air cleaner, new Edelbrock Performer cylinder heads.” She paused and laughed a little when she saw the expression on the men’s faces. “A new Performer Retro-Fit cam and chrome valve covers with an oil fill hole plug to make it look pretty. Also upgraded the bottom of the block and the internals, like new flat-top pistons, pushrods, spring and retainers, that sort of stuff. Obviously she needed oil, filter, plugs and leads, but that’s nothing really. Got a new custom Edelbrock exhaust system too. Now that was an expensive part.” “Well, she sure sounds mighty fine.” Came from Jerry, who had been standing in the door way to the house for a while, completely unnoticed. “An’ you sound like ya know a lot more than ya make out.” “Thanks Jerry.” “No worries sugar. Now, I’m gonna go on an’ get showered, I suggest y’all do the same.” And with that he was gone, shutting the door behind him. Louise wandered back around the side of the truck and switched off the power. As she made her way back to the four men still drooling over her engine, she noticed Vaughn get into his own truck. He didn’t wait to say goodbye to anyone, but instead drove straight out of the ranch, only slowing down to glance for traffic on the highway. “That’s Vaughn for ya.” Terry said, shrugging his shoulders as if to say that he always left like that. “Yeah, I guess.” Louise turned back from watching him leave and put both hands onto the front of the hood. “You guys finished?” She said as she pulled the hood down, locking it into place. “Well, we are now.” Came disappointingly from Dale.

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“I’m sure you’ll have another chance to stare at the beauty of it Dale.” Louise chuckled as she shook her head sarcastically. “Hey.” Matt said, putting his arm around Louise’s shoulder as she started walking around to the driver’s side. “Wanna catch some eats? Me an’ the boys are off to the Mushroom in Enterprise.” “Well, sure.” She smiled up at him. “That would be great. It’s been ages since I’ve gone out and I’m getting fed up of cooking for just me.” She said the last part with a sigh, and Matt released her from his arm so that she could climb into the truck. “Great. I’ll come get you ‘round six thirty. You live on Elm, just off Reese right?” He said, his left hand holding the door open. “Yeah, sounds great. Here, better take my cell just in case you need to ring me.” She said, handing him a piece of paper with her number scrawled on it. “Truck will be out on the drive, so you can’t miss it.” She turned to see the others listening in, Dale frowning almost as if to say ‘why’. “Project in the garage.” She said it to Matt, but it was directed at Dale. “Now, can I have my door back?” She had a slight laugh as she started the V8 again. “Oh yeah, sure.” Matt said as he shut the door. Louise wound down her window, and gave a wave. “See you guys later.” “Sure will darlin’” Replied Tyler, and with that she made her way out of the ranch and back home along the Old Curtis Road.

*

*

*

He had been watching her almost all day, completely unnoticed by everyone. He’d seen her having lunch with the men that worked on the farm and it had made

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him sick. Sick to watch her laughing and joking. He had watched how the one called Vaughn had taught her to ride a horse and it made his skin crawl just to watch him touch her. To watch him place his hands around her ankles and shift her shoulders as she sat in that saddle. As he sat in his pickup truck at the side of the road, he watched as her own truck left the ranch, shortly followed by a red Dodge and a white Silverado. An’ she’s goin’ out tonight in Enterprise. He elbowed the window in a rage as he thought about the different situations she would get herself into that night. She’s gonna dress like a slut. She’s gonna act like a slut. Hell, she needs her manners checkin’. He sat in silence for another couple of minutes before pulling away. He headed towards his home at a steady pace, keeping level with the traffic as he thought about her. Drawing attention to himself was the very last thing that he wanted. He had hated that. The attention Louise had always drawn to herself when she was angry and used to speed off down the road for a drive. She got what she deserved when she got back though. He smiled as he remembered how it felt to feel her cheek against the knuckles of his hand. She’d soon learn where her place was again. No matter what it took, she would. Even if it was the last thing he did.

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Country Boy

I can’t believe the new girl is her. Talk ‘bout mixin’ business an’ pleasure. Jesus Christ. Vaughn was making his way back onto Hickman Avenue heading west. His house wasn’t too far from the Calahee ranch and he could actually walk if he really wanted to, but he liked to drive his truck far too much to sacrifice his ten minute drive. As he flicked his lights on, he pressed his foot on the brake slightly, waiting for an opportunity to overtake the slower Pontiac in front. When he saw one he put his foot to the floor, making the other driver look over in shock as the truck rumbled past and pulled back into the right lane. God, I love his truck. Vaughn smiled to himself, giving the dashboard a quick pat. No sooner had he overtaken the Pontiac, he was turning up his dirt drive to his house, the four rectangular headlights swinging up the drive to light the way. The drive was a little over a quarter of a mile long coming straight off the highway, which was perfect for Vaughn. There were huge pine trees lining the drive, and just as he started to slow his truck down, it opened up to expose a huge yet beautiful log home that had been built slightly into a bank. There was a large hip roof barn almost five hundred yards from the house that held a nice amount of old classic muscle cars he had restored, a couple still needing a little TLC, by his standards anyway. He reversed the truck up to the double garage and jumped out, locking it behind him. He’d never been broken into nor had trespassers on his land, even though it was pretty difficult to keep an eye on all of his thirty acres, but he liked to be safe.

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He made his way up the decked steps taking two at a time, and walked around to the door into the dining room. He had always used that door as it was closer to the kitchen. The main entrance was actually on the walk-out basement level at the side of the garage, but he never used it unless it was really necessary. He locked the door behind him before walking into the huge expanse that was his kitchen, flicking on the coffee machine as his keys landed on the island in the middle. He leant against the counter top looking out of the dining room doors at the impending nightfall. It was a beautiful house, inside and out, and never in his wildest dreams could he have imagined he would be living in something like this at thirty one years of age. That said, he wasn’t exactly the one that wanted a house his big in the first place. Cindy. He sighed, a pain stabbing him in his heart, making him wince. He hadn’t thought about her properly since he’d met Louise, but it was hard to keep Cindy from his mind. The fact that the house was her idea and not his having a big reason to play in it. He turned his attention back to his coffee, and after stirring the contents in his mug, slipped his boots off, leaving them by the kitchen counter. Finally a decent coffee. He sighed as he made his way into the big family room at the fore front of the house. The family room was enormous to say the least, with its vaulted ceiling rising up two stories. There was a fireplace made of stone against the rear wall that rose up the middle of the house, separating the family room from the stairs. There were double doors that opened out onto the decking, and long rectangular windows above them that were on the same level as the second storey.

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He placed his mug on the hearth by the fire before moving the grate in front of it. Picking up one of the pokers that hung on a stand, he jabbed it into the ash, wiggling it around so that the glowing embers underneath were exposed. He picked up a couple of logs from the basket on the opposite side and threw them into the glow, adding a couple of pieces of kindling to help bring it back to life. He watched it for a minute or two, and when he was finally satisfied, moved the grate back over the front and picked up his coffee. He moved over and sat down on his couch, swinging his legs up so that he was facing the doors, and gazed outside as darkness finally fell. September nights. He thought, as the light from the fire barely lit the room. He leant over to the coffee table, being careful not the spill his coffee over himself, and pressed a button on one of the remote controls. Slowly the small spot lights in the vaulted ceiling came to life, lighting up the rest of the shadows in the room with a warm glow. He sat back into a comfortable position and sipped on his coffee. Dang remotes. Should have just had regular switches. He thought to himself as he looked over at the five remotes that were scattered on the wooden coffee table. One controlled the lights in each room, and another was for the television set that sat just above the fire. There was one that looked a lot like the remote for the television and that one was for the DVD player. There was another for the motorised blinds on the main floor windows and the smallest one was a remote for the garage, not that he ever used it anymore. Vaughn had never been one for all these fancy kind of things. That was all Cindy. Strange that he had fallen for someone so different to himself. He had

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actually thought that she was the one for him, and that she loved him and not the money. Oh how wrong I was. He thought, feeling deflated. Vaughn’s parents had split when he was three years of age, his father moving to Texas and leaving his mom, Cheyenne, to look after Vaughn on her own in Moundville, just south of Tuscaloosa. Vaughn had never seen his biological father, instead being bought up by his moms newer love interest, a rancher called Aaron Perriloux. Aaron was the best man Vaughn’s mother had ever known and had made a great dad too. He taught him his rights from wrongs and bought him up to be a Southern gentleman who was n’t afraid of hard work. He taught him the value of everything he held dear, but also taught him everything he knew about farm work and breaking in horses. During his early twenties, Vaughn, with some financial help from his mom and step-dad, moved to Elba. He was asked to help out on one of the ranch’s breaking in horses, which he was pretty damn good at, even being as young as he was. He promised to send money back over to his mom when he could, the pay being a lot better in Elba seeing as there was no one in the area that could do the work. Vaughn kept his promise, his mother being more than grateful. By the age of twenty three, he had entered in the professional rodeos, taking second place in the first weekend. He had competed in bareback bronc riding, missing first by only two points. Reporters had gone crazy about his near first, being excited about the ‘rookie’ and claiming he had everything that made a World Champion. His biological father must have read about all of it in the local newspaper, as a week later Vaughn had received a parcel that contained an old belt buckle and a note that read:

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‘Son. Congratulations on your first rodeo. This was my fathers, and my grandfathers before that. You have earned it so now I pass it to you. Take care of it, and it will take care of you. Your Father’. Vaughn had never quite gotten over receiving that parcel, only having the courage to wear the buckle another three years later. At the age of twenty four he got called to a Will reading in Texas to find that his real father, Jayson Jefferson, had built himself quite an empire out there rebuilding and restoring classic American cars. He had left Vaughn the entire company, claiming that he never did enough for him in life, so in death he wanted to make amends. Vaughn went on to sell the company and his fathers cars, paying off his current mortgage, buying some land to design his own house on, and giving a huge amount to his mom and step-dad so that they needn’t work again. Of course they were more than grateful, but they kept the ranch going as Aaron wasn’t the type to sit still and enjoyed the work. In that same year, he had met Cindy. He didn’t fall for her instantly, and it took a few months of her chasing him before he actually agreed to a date. That date was the night he had fell completely in love with her. They had moved in together and Vaughn had started to collect ideas for the house he wanted to build on his land, Cindy wanting him to go for a bigger log home with all the modern conveniences. He had given in to her, selling one hundred acres that he didn’t need to Jerry Calahee. It wasn’t long before Jerry had offered him work at his ranch, Vaughn accepting to work casually, specialising in the horses themselves.

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When he had turned twenty nine and the house had finally been completed, he had asked Cindy to marry him. She had said yes, but had grown distant as the plans for the wedding progressed. He had thought that it was just the stress, but two weeks before the wedding he had found out that she had been sleeping with one of his friends. That friend was his work mate, best friend and best man, Matthew MacLewland. Vaughn had been gutted, Matt telling him that she had only wanted him for his money and that it was better to get it all out in the open now than getting a divorce six months down the line. He had taken time off working on the ranch, not being able to face Matt after what he had done. Still to this day they didn’t see eye to eye, tension being more than half of what their working relationship was based on. Neither of them knew when the other would eventually snap under pressure. Of course, Vaughn had tried to make Cindy see sense and that she was still in love with him, but she finally left the house just before Vaughn had turned thirty. She told him that she was moving back to her mothers and that he should never call her. Now I’m stuck all alone in this big stupid house. He thought, not quite getting emotional enough to break down. Lord knows he’d spent more than his fair share of tears on that girl. He sat there and finished his coffee, placing the mug on the table between all of the remotes. He crossed his arms underneath his head, his Stetson falling forward over his eyes, as he lay back and faced up into the vaulted ceiling. On a different note. He changed his thoughts back to Louise. Today has been a very good day. He shut his eyes and imagined her again, his heart starting to

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pound in his chest as he thought back to her leaning against Bullitts stall. Her shirt being hitched up around her elbows and her hair falling out of her bun slightly to tease her cheeks. The jeans she wore clinging to the curves of her hips and legs, torn slightly around the bottom where they were a little too long and dragged on the floor. He reminisced how her blue eyes always caught his, something seeming to hold his gaze and not being able to pull himself away. Not that I wanted to in the first place. The words popped into his mind and he couldn’t help but smile to himself. He carried on thinking about her, not moving from his spot on the couch. He wondered what it would be like to run his hands through her hair. What it would be like to feel the curve of her waist in his hands and her body pressed against his. He opened his eyes as a cold tingle ran down his whole body, heart beating harder than it had in years. He realised at that exact moment that just a mere memory of her was enough to arouse his senses in ways he hadn’t known existed. He sighed as he swung his legs over the edge of the couch. He sat up slowly with his elbows on his knees, rubbing his eyes with the palms of his hands. “Time for a shower I think.” He said as he pressed two buttons on the remote so that the lights in the vaulted ceiling went off and the lights came on in the stairway. Rising from the couch with a tired effort, he slowly made his way around the chimney breast and straight up the stairs, not bothering to move his coffee mug or to close the blinds.

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American Saturday Night

“Shelby, please help me!” Louise begged down the phone to her best friend as she was standing in her closet, baffled about what to wear. She had not long gotten out of the shower when she’d realised that she hadn’t a clue about how she wanted to look. After all, it had been a while since she’d been out to dinner with a guy, and she’d never been out with four. Unless you called a few beers and nibbles at the local bar that was a couple of blocks over from her parents’ house dinner . “You know what’s in my closet inside out and back to front . What do I wear?” “I have never ever heard ya like this baby girl.” Shelby said slowly down the phone. “An’ if it ain’t with that cowboy fella you so happen to like, ain’t no point in worryin’.” “Okay, right. I need to impress but not be girly. You know, but like, feminine, but not, I dunno, pink and fluffy.” She said back, shrugging her shoulders with a sigh and scouring through mounts of clothes, both hanging and on the floor. “Okay, you’ve lost it. I’m hangin’ up now.” “Right. Focus.” “Yes, you should.” She knew just by her tone that Shelby had nodded down the phone at her. “Okay. Focused.” Louise took a deep breath. “Now, Shelby, my dear bestest friend in the whole wide wor-” “Stop it there girly. I’d go for your brown cowboy boots, blue skinnies tucked in an’ a nice plain V neck t-shirt, maybe white. Gives you a feminine yet funky edge. Let’s ‘em know you’re a sex object as well as a laid back, fun loving kinda gal . An’ ya know what them white t-shirt’re like.”

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“Actually, I think you’re right. Leather jacket too?” She said as she pulled her brown jacket out from where it had been hanging, looking at it as if she wasn’t too sure. “Go for it. An’ no puttin’ all that hair up either.” Shelby said down the phone, Louise knowing it was more of a telling off then advice. “Low pony to the right so it just sits over your shoulder, an’ let some fall loose at the front on the other side.” Louise put the jacket to one side and leant the phone between her shoulder and her ear so that she could quickly move her hair around. She looked in the mirror for only a second before saying back down the phone, “Yep, lo oks good.” “Then I think you’re set. Look, have fun, don’t drink too much, remember everythin’, an’ next time, make sure I’m free so I can come along. “Don’t worry I won’t. And yes, I will.” “Take care o’ you.” Shelby repeated a phrase from one of the only films both the girls loved. “Take care of you.” Louise hung up before leaning backward slightly to peer into the bedroom. When she had got the angle right, she threw the phone onto her bed, it bouncing twice before finally falling to the floor on the other side of the room. Damn. She quickly gathered her things together and ran out of the closet to the bedroom where she checked her alarm clock. Oh god, it’s six fifteen! She thought as she dropped her towel to the floor and started to get dressed, flopping down on the bed to help pull her jeans on. I am so glad I didn’t wash my hair. That’s all I can say. She slipped into the white v neck t-shirt Shelby had advised her to wear. She then picked up her brown boots and started for the bedroom door, giving Dakota (who had been asleep on the bed until the phone had landed on it) a quick fuss. Shoot,

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jacket. She ran back to the closet and seized it off the hanger. The hanger fell to the floor and not caring to pick it up, raced down the stairs two at a time. She stopped at the bottom to pull on her boots, throwing the jacket over the banister. After sitting there to catch her breath for a second, she quickly moved over to the mirror hanging on the dining room wall, grabbed a band and slung her hair into position. Wow, Shelby’s good. She thought. “Mascara. Where the hell is that thing?” She said out loud as she hunted high and low in the kitchen for the only piece of make-up she ever wore. Shelby had always said she was jealous of Louise’s comp lexion, but all Louise ever told her in return was ‘stop wearing it all and your skin will right itself.’ She never did though, except when the girls were having one of their nights in, because, according to Shelby, ‘that’s different’. “Gotcha!” She exclaimed as she picked up the black tube from the side of the coffee maker. She ran back to the mirror and carefully applied the black liquid to her lashes. Just as she’d replaced the lid and wiped away a black smudge on her nose, there was a knock on her door. She peered around the wall that separated the dining and living room, giving a wave and a laugh as a familiar man pulled a face at her through the window. “It’s open!” She shouted, hearing him step into the house, the wooden heels of his boots clacking on the floor just in front of the mat. “Funky house.” Matt said taking a look around. “The others’ve gone straight there, left me to pick ya up. Hope you don’t mind.” He smiled, not moving from the spot by the door where he had lent his shoulder against the wall.

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“Not at all. I’ll just grab my jacket.” She said as she moved over to the banister. “You look nice.” Matt said looking her up and down with an approving grin as she approached him, shrugging her jacket on as she did. “Well thanks. And you too.” She mentioned as she came to a stop in front of him. He was wearing the same Resistol hat from earlier, except he had changed into lighter blue denim jeans. He’d replaced his red plaid shirt for a plain white one, the only detail on it being the famous bowtie of the Chevrolet logo on the breast pocket. “I guess that Silverado at the ranch was yours?” She said looking up at him. “How ever did ya guess?” He said with a cheeky smile, pushing himself off the wall and motioning to the door that was still slightly ajar. “Ready?” “As I ever will be.” She said, making her way outside and locking the door behind them. They stepped off the porch and made their way to the white 1996 Chevrolet Silverado that was parked at the kerbside. “Your chariot awaits.” Matt said as he opened the passenger door to let Louise in. She put her right foot on the chrome step bar and one hand on the top of the door, giving a push on her left foot to help propel herself inside. “You don’t realise how big it is until you try and get in it do you?” She joked. Matt ran around the driver’s side of the truck, jump ing in with ease and settling himself into the seat. “I know it’s high, but it means I can scare people on the highway. Got some boggers at home too. She’s awesome off road.” With a mischievous smile he started the engine and tore off down the street towards Interstate 84 east and their destination.

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“So, how often do you boys go out in Enterprise then?” Came from Louise as she quickly scanned the interior of the truck. “And you’ve cleaned this out haven’t you?” She looked at him with a questioning smile. “Dang sugar, you don’t miss a thing d’ya?” He said, glancing over and giving her a quick grin, his grey eyes still checking her out when he thought he could get away with it. “I’m a woman, I’m not supposed to miss things. Change my mind, maybe, but miss things, no.” She shifted in her seat so she was turned slightly towards him. “The cheek of it all.” He replied. “Here I am pickin’ you up to take ya to dinner, an’ all I get is sarcasm. Pisht.” It was obvious that he was being sarcastic himself, and turned to give her a wink. Leaning over to give him a light shove, she said, “What’s this place like anyhow? Don’t think I’ve ever been.” “I ain’t ever heard an English accent say anyhow before.” He said, a slight chuckle in his voice. “An’ Mellow Mushroom does the best pizza in a hundred mile radius. Can’t believe you ain’t ever been.” He tried to keep his eyes on the highway as he overtook a couple of slower moving cars. “Nope I haven’t, but it sure sounds good. And don’t take the mick out of my accent. Like I told Vaughn earlier, I’d change it if I could, and I can’t say I haven’t tried.” She said it matter-of-factly as she leant over to see how the stereo worked. “Um, no offence, but can we not talk ‘bout him?” He said looking over, frowning slightly. “Sore subject.” She shrugged as she listened to the first track. “CDB, I’m impressed.” She sat back up after she’d set the volume to a steady background noise and looked over to him.

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“I don’t listen to them all the time. Check out the glove box if ya wanna embarrass me some more.” “I surely will.” She open the compartment and looked at the neat stacks of CD’s. “Tidied in here too huh?” She glanced at him slightly, just able to see his cheeks flush a little. “Hey, that’s always tidy. I ain’t one for cleanin’ my stuff just ‘cause I got a lady in my truck.” “No, course not.” She rolled her eyes and carried on delving through the cases. “Some good choices Matthew.” “Hey.” He held her gaze for a second or so and she watched the playful flickers dance around his eyes. He smiled as he finished. “Don’t call me Matthew.” “Touchy, touchy.” She paused. “Matthew.” She replied, making him chuckle as he shook his head in disbelief. “Man oh man, I ain’t ever known anyone like you before.” He stated. “Well, there ain’t many o’ me ‘round sugar.” Louise mimicked a rather casual Southern accent as Matt shook his head again with a laugh. She watched as he put his left elbow on the top of the door panel against the window and his index finger lightly against his mouth. “Ain’t many people that make me speechless.” “But I’m one of them? Privileged.” She said placing her hand on her heart mockingly. “Hey, you know.” He started to say, taking his hand away from his mouth and pointing at her calmly as if trying to think of his next words. “A Southern accent pretty suits you. Don’t change it though. I like you just the way you are.” He paused as his

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eyes moved back to hers again. “An’ don’t think I’ll let ya off for that Matthew thing.” He raised his eyebrows as if to challenge her. “Now I’m speechless.” She said casually, a sly smile creeping across her lips before flicking through the tracks on the CD. He gave her a wink before turning onto the Boll Weevil Circle at Enterprise. “Well lookie who we have here.” He flashed his lights at the red truck in front, the middle passenger turning around in his seat sticking his middle finger in the air. “Terry, you shit.” Matt said it under his breath but she managed to catch it. “Matthew, language.” She said, laughing as he looked over at her. “You’re so gonna get it girly, you just wait.” Matt followed the truck into the parking lot of the Mellow Mushroom, the only space available for them being at the back of the lot. He turned off the ignition, the stereo going silent, and jumped out of the Silverado with Louise, shutting the doors at the same time. “Yo cowboy!” Shouted over Dale who was wearing the same sandy colored Stetson as he had earlier. He had just jumped out of the driver’s side of the red truck, Louise seeing that it was in fact the same old 1986 Dodge Ram that had been at the ranch. “I keep tellin’ you to get rid o’ that piece o’ crap an’ get a real truck.” Matt shot back as he made his way over, Louise in tow. “Y’all know I don’t like General Motors man.” Dale said locking the truck as the other two jumped out the opposite side, both of them wearing Stetsons. “Hey Louise.” Said Dale as she caught up to him and Matt. It still surprised her just how tall Dale was.

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“Dang!” Terry exclaimed as he looked her up and down, his black hat covering his greasy black hair and looking almost brand new. “You should come work in that some time.” “Shit, Terry.” Matt said, pushing his hat down over his eyes as he walked past him and into the restaurant. “What?” He looked bewildered as they all walked past him. He pushed his Stetson back to where it should be and scurried inside. “We’ve got a table booked for 7pm, but only for four. Any chance there’s one o’ them round tables free, then we can all squish on that.” Matt said to the waitress who greeted them as they piled inside. “Of course, you were being put on one of those anyway. I know what mess you guys like to make.” She said it with a flirty smile as she grabbed five menus and ushered them to follow her over to a table in the corner. “Now your waitress is Brianna, she’ll be over in just a tick to take your drink orders. Enjoy.” She disappeared as they all finished climbing into the round booth, Louise in the middle sitting with Matt and Dale on either side. Just as they got settled into their seats, a rather tall girl, no older than twenty one with black hair tied back into a pony tail, waltzed over almost like she was floating on air. “Hey there!” She exclaimed in her very light Southern accent, it seeming she’d moved down to the area and picked it up more than grown up with it. “What drinks can I get for y’all tonight?” She stood, pen and notepad poised, ready to write down the order. “We’ll have four bottles o’ Bud Light please.” Matt said leaning over the table on his forearms so that he could see the waitress. “What d’ya want Louise?” He looked back at her.

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“Erm, can I just have a glass of water please?” She said so Brianna could hear her, all the men around the table turning to look at her in disbelief. “What? I don’t really drink.” She replied to their questioning looks. “An’ a water for the lady. Thanks.” Matt said, giving the waitress a nod to symbolise that they were done ordering. For now anyway. “They’ll be right with you.” She spun on her heels and gracefully raced back to the bar. “So, not an alcoholic like the rest o’ the English huh?” Said Terry mockingly. “Nope. And I’m not English, I’m American.” She smiled knowing he’d be confused by the remark. “Huh? No you ain’t. You got an English accent an’ eveythin’.” He said, confusion written all over his face. “English born, yes. English citizen, kinda. American citizen, yes. Been living here over ten years now and am officially a proud American. If you want to be picky it’s twelve years almost exactly.” She said with a smile on her face. “Okay, I think I get it.” Said Terry, the others trying hard not to laugh, including Louise. “So not even beer then?” Dale asked leaning away from her slightly. “Well, okay, now and again, but not all the time. More often than not I don’t like the taste.” She replied. “Here, try this.” Terry slid his full bottle over to Louise as Brianna started to place them on the table. Louise picked up the bottle and took a sip, Matt and the others watching her intensely. She swallowed, moving the bottle from her mouth and rolling it in her hand for a few seconds, trying to figure out if she could stomach it before taking another

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sip. “It’s actually pretty good.” She said, slipping it back down the table to Terry who caught it in his right hand. “Get the gal one o’ these too.” He said back to Brianna, who scooted back to the bar to fetch Louise a bottle. “You want this still?” Matt said as he dangled the glass of water in front of her. “Well, yeah. It is free.” Louise exclaimed as she gave him a silly look, and the table erupted into laugher. Terry looked over to Brianna as she bought the beer and placed it on the table. “She ain’t half a cheap date.” He said with a chuckle, everyone around the table laughing even harder. “Y’all looked at the menus yet or you need more time to decide?” Brianna said with a smile, Louise knowing that she probably dealt with this sort of thing day in and day out. “Lou, you’re havin’ what we’re havin’, that okay?” Said Matt, touching Louise’s shoulder with his left hand but not looking up from his menu. “Well, I guess it’s going to have to be.” She said with a smile, not actually minding at all as it saved her from getting stuck on what to choose. “Oh, and Matt.” She started just as he turned to tell the waitress what they were having. He turned his head back slightly, raising his eyebrows. “Don’t call me Lou.” She raised her eyebrows with a grin before nudging him with her shoulder. He smiled as he shook his head before turning back to Brianna who was waiting patiently. “W e’ll have two house special pizzas, one without tomato, an’ one funky q chicken pizza. Thanks.” And with that Brianna headed off towards the kitchen to place the order.

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Louise slowly moved her gaze over the other customers in the restaurant as she laughed with the others. When she turned her attention back to the group around the table, Matt looked over to her and frowned slightly, causing her eyes to swing back to him. “Erm, guys.” Louise started, changing the subject and tone as she leant in so they could all hear her over the noise. “What does everyone keep looking over at us for?” “They’re lookin’ at us ‘cause, frankly, they wanna be us.” Said Dale as he supped on his bottle of Bud. “An’ the girls are lookin’ at you ‘cause they wanna be sittin’ where you are right now.” Said Matt, leaning in to give her shoulder a gentle nudge along with a sweet smile. “See, that’s what I don’t get. My best friend’s the same. What is it with you guys? I mean, no offence or anything.” “Ask Vaughn. Y’all seemed pretty close today an’ ya only jus’ met.” Came from Tyler, his arms bulging from his t-shirt as he crossed them. “Excuse me?” Louise said straight back to him. “And what’s that supposed to mean?” “He’s jealous ‘cause he likes you.” Matt said mockingly, making a joke out of the situation before it was given even the slightest chance to escalate. “Just ignore him, we do.” “Hey, now that ain’t fair.” Said Tyler in response, a small blush filling his cheeks as he bowed his head to try and hide it.

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“Well, I’m just good lookin’.” Came from Terry as he straightened the collar of his button down shirt with a quick tug, his pot belly disappearing slightly as he sat up straight. Dale laughed as he leant over the table to give him a punch. “No Terry, you’re just dumb.” Said Dale as he sat back down from the punch he’d delivered. “Hey, I’m not dumb.” He replied as he rubbed his arm. “Erm, actually, you kind of are.” Butted in Louise, everyone erupting into laugher again and Matt almost choking on a swallow of beer. “I like you.” Dale chuckled, giving Louise an elbow. “Well.” Matt said, clearing his throat. “It ain’t just us that think it Terry, so it’s gotta be true.” “Thanks guys, I know where I’m wanted, huh?” Terry sounded almost deflated, but it was obvious that it was put on. “Terry, let me put this in perspective for ya.” Matt said, pointing the top of his beer across the table at him. “You don’t know crap ‘bout autos, as proven by this lovely lady over here this afternoon.” He glanced over at Louise who gave him an agreeing nod and smile. “You can hardly ride an’ yet y’all was bought up on a ranch over in Opp an’ you’re one o’ the most gullible guys I’ve ever known.” Matt took another swig from his bottle as he lifted his eye brows in Terry’s direction. Terry was wounded by the remark and you could see it clearly in his face. “I agree.” Said Dale, Tyler also nodding in agreement. “But.” Matt started again. “I must say that he’s a great friend, an’ a damn hard worker, even if he couldn’t rope a calf if it were sittin’ on him.” “That’s more like it. I think.” Terry exclaimed, Louise grinning in disbelief as they all raised their bottles and saluted.

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“To friendship an’ hard work.” Said Dale as their beers clinked in mid-air. “Old an’ new.” Matt added, winking at Louise as he did so, their eyes meeting again for the hundredth time that night.

*

*

*

“My cheeks hurt.” Louise moaned to Matt. They hadn’t stopped laughing since they had reached the truck, talking about everything and anything that just came to mind. Matt had almost needed to pull to the side of the highway a good couple of times, unable to concentrate on driving. “I think I peed my pants.” He said looking over at Louise as he was trying to keep his gaze serious. “Oh my God, I hope not.” Just the look on her face was enough to start him off again, and he was more than thankful for the red light at the intersection just as they hit Elba. “Thanks again for dinner Matt, I really enjoyed it.” Louise said when they finally stopped laughing, the truck picking up speed again as they moved on green. “Hey, like I said, ain’t a problem. An’ yeah, it was pretty fun weren’t it?” He looked over and gave her his signature smile, it lighting up his grey eyes underneath his chocolate Resistol. “Yeah, haven’t had a night like that for far too long.” She sighed, relaxing back into the seat. “Hey, I don’t mean to pry, but it don’t really seem like you’ve ever done much. I don’t mean it in a bad way or anythin’.” He said it gently, trying not to hurt her feelings.

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“Well, to be honest, I haven’t. Being blunt, my ex was a bit of a control freak and we never did much of anything. He cheated on me a little more than six months ago, and that’s why I left. Finally couldn’t take it anymore. Sorry, it’s a bit morbid to end the night on.” “Hey.” He started as they pulled up outside her house. “No one deserves to be cheated on. You did the right thing, by me anyhow.” He placed his right hand on top of hers, feeling that she needed the slight bit of comfort. She didn’t move her hand, but instead looked at his on top. “Yeah well. I didn’t feel like that when I landed on Shelby’s doorstep at 1am. But now I know I did do the right thing, even if it hurt like hell at the time.” He watched as she stared out of the windscreen, looking down the street at the front porches that were lit by lanterns and small flood lights. He saw her vulnerability for the first time since they had met that morning. He had to admit to himself that he was attracted to her, even if it was only a little infatuation. What man wouldn’t be? He glanced down at their hands as she pulled hers out from under his, moving his gaze back to the road as he noticed a set of headlights. When the car had passed he moved his eyes back to her and watched as she pulled her band from her hair. She fluffed it out with a sigh, almost as if it was uncomfortable having it tied up. He took a breath, not knowing what her response would be to his next question. “Erm, I know I didn’t wanna talk ‘bout him, but, ya know how Vaughn’s gettin’ you ridin’? Well, I wouldn’t mind teachin’ ya some skills, you know, if ya wanna.” He moved his hands and placed both of them on top of the steering wheel, bracing himself for a sharp response.

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“Sounds fun. If you’re as good as everyone makes out, I’d be honoured.” Louise, rested her head on the seat back as she looked over at him, the street lights casting shadows throughout the cab. “Well, I am. An’ why ya laughin’?” He shifted in his seat so he was slightly facing her. “I’m not, I just remembered something Shelby said, that’s all. You’d like her. She’s just as funny as me, except more casual with it.” She said, a big smile on her face. He knew then she was talking about her best friend. “I’m sure I would, but I’d rather spend the time with you.” He said it calmly, but as his eyes caught hers, he knew she could tell he was deadly serious. “Honestly, she’s great. And I’m sleepy.” She rolled her head to the right, and forced herself off the back of the seat, placing her hand on the door handle. “Want me to tuck you in?” His cheeky smile was back, making Louise smile wearily as she opened the door and hopped out of the cab, turning back around to face him. “I’m okay thanks, have Dakota to do that for me.” He didn’t quite know what to say, and by her chuckle, his expression must have been priceless. “My cat.” She laughed as her hand kept hold of the door. “Oh. Right.” Matt replied with a slight nod. “Didn’t know ya had a cat.” He questioned. “You didn’t ask.” She said, slowly walking back towards the cab of the truck, him leaning over so he was a little closer to her. “What’s up?” He asked, a light frown on his forehead but his playful smile still lighting up his eyes.

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“I’ll see you in the morning.” She said before walking backwards to the trucks door, shutting it with a clang. He watched her walk onto her porch and turned around as the automatic light flicked on, giving him a wave. He waved back as he shifted the Silverado into ‘Drive’ and stuck his foot down on the gas pedal, knowing she’d shake her head with a laugh as she saw the smoke from his rear tires.

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More Than A Feeling

“I still can’t believe you.” Shelby gave Louise a hard punch on her shoulder. “I’m surprised he didn’t wanna explode in his pants!” “Oh my God, Shelby!” Louise said in a low voice, but it sounding more like a whispered shout. “I’d not been out for ages, and just wanted to see if I still had it, so at least give me some credit for that.” “From the sounds of it girl, you sure have.” Shelby gave her a knowing glance as she turned her back on Louise, waltzing down towards the window to stack some new products on the shelves. “Hey, guess who I see.” She said not turning around, and she didn’t need to. The door chime jingled as a familiar man walked into the store, heading straight towards Louise behind the counter. Louise felt her heart start to beat faster as time seemed to slow down. His pace seemed to be in slow motion as she watched him approach, the wooden heels of his boots clacking on the floor. His black Stetson fell forward slightly hiding his eyes again. Oh hell. Her knees felt like they would buckle at any moment, her mind drawing a complete blank on everything else around her. “Hey.” He said, tilting his head back slightly and looking straight at her. He leaned casually on the counter, her heart jumping in her chest. “Hi.” She only just managed, still in shock that he was standing in front of her in the store again. No one spoke for what seemed like an eternity, silence falling so hard you could hear a pin drop. “D’ya wanna grab some lunch?” He said in almost a whisper, still not moving his brown gaze from hers.

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“Erm, sure.” She looked over to Shelby who was standing by the window watching them, an ‘oh my God’ being mouthed to Louise. Vaughn turned around slightly, leaning on his left arm that was still on the counter. He tipped his hat at Shelby, who, after a quick wave, scooted through the ‘Staff Only’ door, not saying a word. “She’s not normally that shy.” Louise said about her friend. “I’m sure. Um, so, lunch?” He looked back at Louise, a small smile on his lips. “How long have you got?” She replied, looking to see where her friend had gone. “All day.” He couldn’t stop looking at her and she wondered what it was that he was thinking. “Hey, y’all can go for your lunch now. Bryan’s cool.” Shelby reappeared from the door, scooting behind the counter as she did, a huge grin on her face. “Erm, I’ll wait in my truck.” He said directly to Louise before turning to Shelby. “No offence or anythin’.” “Hey, no problem. Just play nice an’ have her back in one piece.” She gave him a wink, as he let go of a slight chuckle. He turned and walked back towards the exit, the chime chinking as the door closed behind him. “Now, how ‘bout that.” Shelby leaned over the counter looking back towards Louise as she rushed over to the ‘Staff Only’ door. “You’re so embarrassing, you know that?” Louise said as she disappeared, reappearing not thirty seconds later with her bag. “See you in a bit.” “Y’all be good.” Shelby called after her as she dashed out of the front door. The truck was just out of view from the window of the store, but Louise was sure that Shelby would be trying to get a good view without being noticed. She

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walked quickly, wanting to make the most of the hour she had for her lunch with Vaughn. I can’t believe he’s asked me to lunch. She thought as she was two vehicles away from opening the passenger door. It seemed that she was in rather high demand. Which is nice for a change. She smiled to herself as the passenger door swung open, surprising her. Obviously Vaughn had been watching her approach. “Hey.” She said as she threw her bag onto the seat and clambered up into the cab of the pickup. It didn’t quite seem as high as Matts, but saying that, his chrome step bar did seem closer to the cab than Vaughn’s. I’ll get better at this. She promised herself as she finally sat herself down. “Hey.” He said back, turning the key another click in the ignition and making the whole truck shake, drowning out ‘Little Thing Called You’ that was playing on the stereo. “You set?” She saw him glance over at her as she smiled, the deep burble of the engine not quite what she had expected. “Yep.” She smiled again, her eyes meeting his before she watched him stick the automatic column shifter into ‘Reverse’. Her heart skipped a beat as he moved his right arm over the back of the seat, turning his head so that he could see out of the rear window. When he had moved far enough out of the space, he threw the shifter into ‘Drive’ and pulled away from the empty space. Louise frowned slightly as he slowed down and positioned his pickup truck so it faced the road before bringing it to a complete stop. “So, what d’ya fancy?” He said looking over at her, left hand still on the steering wheel as the other rested on his lap. “Erm, I’m easy. Honestly.” She reassured him as he looked at her.

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“Okay, if you’re sure.” He replied as he took his foot off the break and slowly applied the gas, powering out onto the empty road. Neither of them noticed as a silver pickup took the opportunity to pull out behind them from the opposite side. “So, still not sure?” He turned slightly as he took a right onto Claxton Avenue. “Nope. I’m all yours. Just make sure I can get a cup of coffee.” She reached into her bag, pulling it onto her knee as she delved into it on the hunt for her lip salve. She knew Vaughn was watching her out the corner of his eye and she couldn’t help but smile. Finally she found it, applying it quickly before throwing it back into her bag. Suddenly Vaughn checked his rear view, Louise moving her eyes to his as he frowned. “Hey, Louise?” He asked her as he checked again. “You don’t know that truck behind d’ya?” He looked in his rear again, the truck behind obviously riding a little too close for comfort. “Only, I think he was sittin’ outside the store.” She turned to look, but only managed to catch the rear of the vehicle. “I don’t know. He’s turning off.” She said as they passed the ice cream store. “Good.” He replied as they hit downtown, lunch time traffic seeming to clog up the roads more than it usually did. “Fancy a coffee at the coffee place?” “You read my mind.” She replied with a sigh as the pickup behind veered off to the left, leaving the GMC to turn onto Simmons Street and park up. She watched him switch off the ignition, silence falling in the cab before he looked over to her with a nod. He jumped down and walked around to Louise’s door just as she had hopped down herself. They walked into the cafe without really saying a word and headed down to a booth out of the way of the other customers. I haven’t been here in ages. Louise thought as she took in the familiar surroundings, the lights being dim and casting a deep orange glow over everything.

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The light from the windows didn’t quite touch the back corners of the room, and Louise wondered if Vaughn had bought her here because he had just fancied a coffee, or whether he had something else up his sleeve. What if he has? Her heart jumped as she shook the thought from her head. “I haven’t been here for so long.” Louise said as they settled into their seats facing one another. “It’s nice to feel like you’re away from everyone, even when you clearly aren’t.” She grabbed the lunch menu and had a quick look through, subconsciously twisting a lock of her hair around her index finger. “Yeah.” Was all he said in reply, leaning back against the seat with his arms folded loosely. She glanced at him over the top of the menu, not quite sure at what she wanted. There were a few nice sounding sandwiches that were listed, but if she was completely honest with herself, she was a little too nervous to eat. “Erm, to be honest I think I might just have a coffee. That okay?” She said, finally looking up from the menu. “Course it is. I ain’t eatin’ anyhow.” He replied, sitting up so that he was ready to go and order the drinks. “What d’ya want?” “Why did you bring me to lunch if you’re not going to eat?” She asked him with a cheeky smile. “And I’ll just have a regular coffee please.” “Okay. An’ I wanted to spend some time with you. Alone. Away from the other guys an’ work.” With that he got up from the table and went to order the two drinks, leaving her feeling a little stunned at his answer. Oh my God. Louise thought as she watched him walk towards the counter, grinning to herself. He was wearing black jeans and a deep red shirt, and Louise

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suddenly realised that that was the first time she had seen him wear any color. And it really suits him. She watched him pay for the drinks, obviously to save any interruption during the next forty five minutes, and as he turned around and made his way back to the table, she was drawn to his belt buckle. She hadn’t taken any notice until now, but from where she was sitting, it looked stunning. She blushed slightly before she quickly returned her gaze to his face, hoping he hadn’t seen where she’d been looking. “They’ll bring ‘em over.” Vaughn said as he sat down. He glanced at her with a small frown before adding, “Don’t mean to be rude, but what was it you were lookin’ at exactly?” He had his arms crossed in front of him on the table, and Louise tried to hold back a slight shiver that rose up her back. “Just noticed your buckle, that’s all.” She shrugged as he smiled, watching him as he paused before moving his hands to his waist. She frowned as she watched his hands move, trying to figure out what he was doing. Her pulse quickened as she realised he was undoing his belt. What is he doing? Inside she started to panic. “Here. It’s old, so be gentle.” He handed her the buckle, face side up. Louise let out her breath slowly, hesitating before finally leaning over the table to take it from him. “Wow. This really is something.” She said, peering at it almost in a daze. She lifted her head only for a second as she finished. “It’s so beautiful.” She studied the detail of the buckle. The gold cowboy on a gold bucking horse in the middle of the dark sterling silver rectangle. There were gold flowers in each corner with what looked like a ruby in the middle of each one. From the flowers there

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were silver designs that were, at a guess, supposed to be stems and leafs, curling around at the ends and surrounding the rider in the middle. The edging of the buckle had a beautiful rope design that was also silver. “Where did you get it?” She was awe stricken. The amount of detailing was unbelievable. “It was my great grandfathers. My father passed it down to me when I did my first county rodeo.” He clenched his jaw, and Louise noticed his eyes grow a little cold. He had just made it obvious to her that it was a sore subject, but she couldn’t help but wonder why. “I thought you didn’t ride? Rodeo I mean.” She said, only glancing away from the buckle for a second, too mesmerised by it to really be distracted. “I don’t. I used to, but not anymore.” He said it lightly, almost as if shrugging it off, and Louise got the hint that no more questions were to be asked about it. “Is this real gold?” She asked as she traced the cowboy with her finger. “Fourteen carat to be exact.” Vaughn replied, leaning against the seat back observing as she flipped the buckle over. She traced the engraving on the back with her finger. It read: ‘A smart horse makes ya work harder, but gives ya the gift o’ knowledge.’ “Wow. Now that’s a good line.” She said handing it back to him so that he could place it back onto his belt. She had felt slightly uncomfortable that he had taken it off to show her in the first place, but was glad that he had. “That’s old cowboy wisdom for ya.” He said just as the waitress bought the two coffees over. “Thanks.” He said as he finished fastening his belt. She gave him a strange look as she walked away, but offered refills later if they wanted any. He shifted back into his seat so that he was comfortable before lifting his eyes back to

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Louise’s. “A lot o’ the buckles us cowboys wear have engravin’s on the back, ‘specially the ones that’re handed down, like this one.” “It’s nice to have a heritage like that though. Knowing that your great, great grandfather had that scribed especially. I can’t say my family has ever done anything like that.” She sipped her coffee, looking over the top of her mug at the cowboy in front of her. “I like the red by the way.” “Thanks.” He answered, hands around his coffee mug. “I ain’t worn this for a while.” He took a drink of his coffee, looking into the mug as he did. “Seein’ as we’re doin’ complements, your hair looks nice down.” He was shy as he said it, Louise realising that he really wasn’t used to giving complements or receiving them. She blushed a little. “Thanks. I don’t normally have it down, but it has been doing my head in all morning.” She tucked a piece behind her ear that had fallen forward and shifted in her seat slightly, glancing at her watch. She noticed him look her way and shrugged. “I get paranoid about the time when I’m on my lunch.” “Hey, that’s okay. I just hope ya ain’t ready to be gettin’ rid o’ me just yet.” He smiled at her, a warm glow filling his eyes as he spun his mug around on the table between his fingers. Louise could see that something was running through his mind. She could sense that he wasn’t used to being one on one with anyone, not recently anyway. She didn’t mind the silence between them either, as it gave her chance to relax a little more and to just take him in as a whole. She had never understood what Shelby and other girls found so attractive about cowboys. But right now, as she sat in the booth opposite one of the most strikingly mysterious and handsome looking men she had ever seen, she completely understood what all the fuss was about.

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“You sure ya don’t want anythin’ to eat?” He leant back against the seat back again, stretching his legs out under the table. “Honestly, I’m fine. Really.” She said it with a chuckle, making him do the same. “Okay, if you’re sure.” “I am. And if you like, maybe you could take me for a picnic or something sometime.” She said it as she took another sip, thinking that maybe she had been too forward with the remark and cursing herself. “Well sure. I think.” He smiled before looking around the place, almost as if something had distracted him for a second or two. “Excuse me a minute.” “Yeah, sure.” She frowned as he moved from the booth without looking at her, hurriedly walking over to someone that was standing just outside the door. He arrived back at the table less than a minute later, and slipped back into his seat opposite her before he spoke. “Sorry, didn’t want any interruptions.” He signalled the waitress over for a refill. “You want?” He asked Louise casually. “You know I do.” She answered giving him a smile. “Thank you.” He said to the waitress as Louise watched him stir his cup. She smiled gently as she took her hair in her hand, curling it and placing it over her right shoulder. When she finally let go of her concentration, she noticed Vaughn had been watching her, and she sensed him shiver slightly. “You okay over there?” She said looking up at him, snapping him back to reality, if only momentarily. “Yeah, yeah, I’m fine.” He looked guilty as he took another sip of his coffee. “Maybe we should get goin’ after this one. Only got fifteen minutes left o’ your lunch.” “Oh hell, you’re right.” She said looking down at her watch. “I didn’t realise.”

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“Hopefully next time we’ll have longer, huh?” The guilty look was replaced by a fresh and playful smile, almost knocking her for six. Why the hell does he have to be so damn handsome? Louise thought as she bowed her head with a smile, her eyes lifting back to his. She realised right then that she didn’t mind that they hadn’t talked a whole lot in the last half hour . She also realised that he didn’t mind either. “So, you up for more ridin’ this weekend?” He asked her, breaking her away from her thoughts. “Of course I am. Oh, and you know next week?” “Yeah.” “I have the week off.” She took another sip of coffee, swilling it around in the bottom of her mug, nervous about his reaction. “Well then, I’ll have to sort somethin’ out for us to keep ya occupied, won’t I?” He gave her a wink as he finished his own coffee. “Sorry it’s been so short.” “Hey.” She said, stretching her right arm across the table. “I’d enjoy it no matter how long it was. And I really do like the red.” Louise finished her coffee and shuffled out the booth. What the hell did you say that for Louise? She cursed herself as she waited for Vaughn to join her at the side of the table. “Next time we’ll definitely have more time.” He looked down at her with his brown eyes, the flashes causing her to take a breath before they walked out of front door and back to his pickup truck.

*

*

*

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Vaughn had dropped Louise back at her place of work before heading over to the ranch to see Bullitt. He had planned on just going for a ride, but the lure of taking her for lunch had been a little too tempting. Obviously he had hesitated when he finally got to the store, having to sit and gather his composure in the truck for ten minutes. It should have been so easy. But after the heartache he had had in the last couple of years, he had known it wouldn’t have been. But I enjoyed it all the same. He was on a slight hill sitting underneath a tree that was about a mile from the Calahee’s, Bullitt happily chewing on the grass around the bottom of the trunk. Days like this had always made him smile, but the last hour with her had bought a permanent grin to his lips. And it has been too long since that’s happened. He sighed as he looked out across the pasture, watching as the cattle started to move from one area to another, led by one of the larger cows. Like sheep. It was funny how things always worked out that way. Everything following something else, just because someone says they should. He still couldn’t believe that he had told her about where the buckle had come from, let alone taken it off his belt so she could take a closer look. But in saying that, it had been the first time anyone had ever noticed the beauty of it. He shouldn’t have told her that he competed in the rodeos either, but it seemed like he could tell her anything. And strangely enough he wanted to. He hadn’t felt like that before, not even with Cindy. Heck, she didn’t even know ‘bout the buckle. Besides his pride and joy sitting in the garage at home, another sitting outside the farm house and Bullitt, it was his most precious possession. That and the fact that the man who had valued it a couple of years ago when he was thinking of selling it said it was worth over $2500.

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Even though the sum had been tempting, especially after Cindy had wanted a cash payoff, he didn’t take it. It was worth more to him than anything else, and he’d rather be buried in it, knowing that once, his real father had been proud of him. “Strange how things work out, huh big guy?” He turned his head to the stallion who had lifted his head at the sound of Vaughn’s voice. He rubbed Bullitt’s nose with a smile before he went back to ripping up grass, shifting his feet and moving around the tree slightly. His mind went back to Louise pulling her hair back behind her head, exposing her neck before curling it in one hand and placing it over her right shoulder. She hadn’t noticed him stare, but his mind had wondered what it would be like to place his hand against her neck. What her skin would feel like in his palm before running his fingers up to cup her face. What it would be like to be so close to her he could smell the scent of her hair and see all the flecks of color in her eyes. He shivered as he thought about how his mind had wondered. About the images that danced around his imagination. This cannot be happenin’. He shook the images from his head, taking a breath as he finally stood. He walked a few steps over to Bullitt, who had almost disappeared behind the tree in search of more grass and patted him on the side of his neck with a chuckle. “C’mon big guy. Time to go.” Bullitt immediately finished tearing the grass. He lifted his head as Vaughn placed his left foot in the stirrup, pulling himself up and into the saddle. “So, big guy. What d’ya think o’ Louise, huh?” He asked as they headed off back to the ranch. “Like her?” He knew Bullitt didn’t like anyone other than him, and was surprised when he lifted his head up and down in a nod. “What?” He paused, shock on his face. “Really?” Bullitt nodded again with a snort. “Well, I guess that told

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me then, huh?” Vaughn smiled as he shook his head before kicking his horse into a gallop and heading back to the ranch.

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I Know A Little

She awoke with a start to knocking on her door, looking for her alarm clock so that she could see what time it was. It was her day off and by no means was she getting out of bed at silly o’clock in the morning, not for anyone. “What the-?” She exclaimed as she saw the clock reading six fifteen. “Who the hell?” She jumped out of bed and ran over to the window, opening the curtains slightly so she could peek out. She winced as the early morning sunlight hit her eyes, blinding her momentarily. When her eyes finally adjusted and she was able to focus outside, she couldn’t see anyone at all, just a couple of trucks parked outside. One white and one red. “Oh dear God.” She sighed as she pulled her head out of the window and moved back over to her bed to find her discarded cardigan that she’d thrown on the floor the night before. “What the bloody hell do they want?” She stroked Dakota lightly, her still being asleep at the bottom of the bed. Louise ran down stairs drearily rubbing her eyes to making sure she looked awake. She tugged her cardigan around her with a sharp sigh, trying to hide the fact that her nightwear only consisted of a camisole and underpants. As she arrived at the door, she could see Dale on the front lawn looking up at her bedroom window. Matt was standing with half of his back leaning against the glass on the side of the door, the other half of his back and more than likely his right foot, perched on the door itself. “What the hell do you guys want this early in the morning?” She pulled open the door so hard that Matt almost fell backwards into the house.

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“Well hello to you too.” Said Matt as he righted himself and turned around to face her. “There you are. Was ‘bout to shout on up.” Dale called while walking over the front yard to join them by the door. “We came to make you, little lady, breakfast.” Said Matt with a cheeky grin. He looked like he’d been up for hours already, that smile of his more than welcoming and the aviators he wore over his eyes suiting him perfectly. “Well now, look at you! Couldn’t wear less if you were in bed.” Said Terry appearing with Tyler from the other end of the porch. “That’s the point, I was.” She said it through gritted teeth as she stepped aside to let the boys come in. “Boots.” She added as they piled in through the doorway. She moved away from the door so that they could take off their boots, Tyler being the last one in and pulling it to with a click. “Nice legs darlin’” Said Matt looking her up and down as he followed her into the kitchen to put the coffee machine on. “Great aren’t they?” She was being sarcastic as she pushed the boxes of pistons that were still on the counter as close to the wall as they could get. And I was going to get these sorted out today. She thought as the other three wandered towards the kitchen. “Do ya actually wear anythin’ in bed, ‘cause I could swear ya ain’t got anythin’ under that thing.” Terry said, sitting himself down on one of the stools next to the island. “Of course I’ve got something on underneath you fool.” She directed it straight at him with a scowl. “I can’t believe I’ve got to get dressed this early. On my day off!”

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The cowboys all looked at one another, and before anyone else could say another word, Terry broke the silence. “Well, don’t bother gettin’ dressed on account of us, you look just find as ya are.” “Terry.” Louise’s eyes had a fire in them that seemed to shock even Matt . “Shut up and make me some coffee. One sugar please.” With that she made her way to the stairs, knowing that each one of them would be watching her. “And don’t make a mess!” She shouted as she reached the very top step. “I think she’s pissed.” She heard Tyler say as she slammed the bedroom door so that she could have some privacy. That and to emphasize the fact that she was annoyed. Louise scurried into the closet and picked up her jeans that were lying on the floor. I was going to sort this thing out today as well. Damn it. She threw a random tshirt over her shoulder and made her way back into her bedroom. She flung her nightwear under her pillow as usual and made a quick effort to get dressed, brushing her hair as she ran into the bathroom to clean her teeth. I hate the fact I have crappy breath in the morning. She thought as she scrubbed away. Five minutes later she was walking back down the stairs, feeling a little more awake. “Want us to leave?” Matt said leaning against the counter in the corner of the kitchen. He gently took his aviators off, throwing them behind him before crossing his arms to match his legs. His blue plaid shirt bought out the flecks of blue in his grey eyes perfectly. “No, of course I don’t. I just hate being woken up on my day off is all.” She said it with a little guilt in her voice, knowing that she had been a little harsh on all of them. After all they had come to make her breakfast, even if it meant they were

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making their own too. “Thanks.” She said as Terry handed her the coffee he’d made for her. “That’s good then. Now, where y’all keep everythin’ in this place?” Matt said not taking his eyes off her. “Pots and pans are under there, and the rest I’m sure you’ll find . Want any help?” She said as Dale and Matt hunted for the items they needed. They laughed between themselves as they got in each other’s way, Dale knocking Matt’s hat and him just managing to catch it before it fell off his head. “They’ll be fine darlin’, just relax an’ drink your coffee.” Terry said as he got up off the stool and headed towards the living room at the front of the house. “Feel free to look around.” She called after him sarcastically. He turned around and gave her a wink as he disappeared around the wall that separated the dining area from the living room. “Dang! How come I didn’t see this baby on the way in?” She heard him shout, obviously having found the TV set. Louise gave a laugh as she heard him sit down on the couch and turn it on, Tyler joining him. “Pancakes or waffles?” Dale shouted so that the other two could hear. He flicked through the cabinets and finally found what he was looking for, reaching up on his toes for the flour. “Pancakes!” Came the combined shout, Louise shaking her head as she heard a thump and an ‘ouch’ come from Terry. “Like babysittin’.” Dale shook his head at Louise, bringing a small grin to her lips as she wished Shelby was there. She’d be in heaven right now. “So, those two don’t cook?” Louise asked as she sat down on one of the stools.

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“I’m surprised ya even let Terry make you a cup o’ coffee.” Matt turned his head slightly as he placed the bacon on a grill tray. “Oh, an’ I noticed somethin’ that doesn’t rightly belong in a kitchen, if y’all know what I mean.” It was a question without it being a question, and Louise looked over to where the pistons were sitting. “Erm, it’s a project I’m working on. If I ever get chance that is.” A blush filled her cheeks as Dales eyes flicked from her to the counter top, then back again. “That stuff should be in the garage girly. What you workin’ on anyhow?” Dale said as he placed the pancake mix down next to Matt before rinsing his hands. “Like I said, it’s a project.” She rolled her eyes in defeat as Dale lifted his eyebrows at her. “Okay, okay, it’s a 1980 Z-28. Some of the pistons needed replacing, so I’ve decided to swap them all, I just haven’t got around to doing it yet.” “She in the garage?” Asked Matt who had put the bacon under the grill and had started on the eggs. “Over easy, that okay?” He pointed to the goo he’d cracked into the pan. “Only way I like it. And yeah, she is.” She thought about what she’d just said and added, “She’s a mess at the minute, parts and stuff everywhere. Had her sprayed already so she’s mostly covered with sheets to save her from getting scratched.” “I’ll take a look when we’re done.” Dale insisted as he poured the pancake mix into a pan, flipping it over when it was done on one side. Matt called for the other two to get their breakfasts as Dale placed it all neatly on a plate for each of them, cutlery and condiments already being placed on the table by Louise. Terry and Tyler ran into the kitchen like kids waiting on birthday cake, scurrying to the table once they’d picked up their plates. “Here you are darlin’.” Dale handed Louise her plate with a smile.

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“Thanks.” She said as she sat at the head of the table. Matt and Dale came over once they had made sure everything had been turned off. “This is really great guys.” Louise said tucking into the pancake that sat on her plate. She hadn’t realised it but she was actually pretty hungry. “Well it ought to be, I made it.” Said Matt giving her a smile. “Ahem.” Dale cleared his throat as he lifted his eyebrows. “An’ Dale.” He rolled his eyes before saying to Dale in a loud whisper, “Hey, I wanted to take all the credit.” Elbowing him in the side and giving Louise a cheeky wink. They all finished their breakfast without a hitch, Louise laughing at a couple of jokes Terry had said, the rest calling him stupid as they usually did. Matt and Louise cleared the table as Dale went with the others to inspect the Camaro that was sitting in the garage, him telling her that he wouldn’t touch anything that he could break. “You really are unbelievable, you know that?” Louise said to Matt as he stood next to her, leaning against the counter in his usual cowboy fashion. “And don’t you ever take off that hat?” He looked down at her as she loaded the dishwasher, stacking everything neatly and in the right places, the plates being virtually clean as they had polished off the entire lot. “I know I am, an’ no, I never take it off. Except for certain things, then I can’t argue with that.” He gave a nod as his signature smile relit his eyes and made a chill run up her spine. “Matt! Oh my God.” She said back as she shut the dishwasher and pushed the ‘On’ button.

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“I never said what things, so that was totally you.” She flicked him with a dish cloth as he laughed, moving his arms in front of himself to deflect it. “You have such a dirty mind.” “It’s 7am and you’re telling me I have a dirty mind?” “It’s seven thirty actually an’ there’s a first time for everythin’.” He said, pushing himself off the counter and making his way across to the front door. “We’ve all got the mornin’ off so we’re gonna go to town. I’ve got the whole day off so I could be yours all day if ya wanted.” Louise moved towards him and watched as he pulled his boots back on one at a time. “Well, I was only going to sort out my closet and those pistons in there, but you know. Another day.” She paused as she watched him straighten up. “And what are we going to do all day, just you and me?” She watched him as he moved closer, leaning his shoulder on the wall no more than two feet in front of her. “Well, when they’ve all gone back to the ranch, I could show ya what I take my hat off for.” He didn’t move his eyes from hers, playful flickers emerging again as they had done the other day. “You. Are. Terrible.” She said trying to contain a giggle. “And I think I may have to pass if it’s what I think it is.” The door to the basement slammed shut at that moment and the other three emerged with their boots already on. “Nice piece o’ stuff in there.” Dale said as he placed a hand on her shoulder. “We ready to get off to town or what?” “Is anywhere actually open at this time in the morning?” Louise added, fetching her boots from the closet.

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“You’d be surprised.” Matt said as he shooed everyone out of the front door. “You comin’?” Louise looked back at him. “Let me grab my keys and I’ll be there. Am I riding with you again?” She asked him as she grabbed her keys off the living room table. “Unless ya wanna be between Dale an’ Terry, ‘cause Ty would ride with me in exchange for you.” He was holding the front door open as the other three clambered into Dale’s pickup. “Definitely with you then. And I hope I’m never in the situation where I’m between Dale and Terry.” Matt laughed as he shut the door, Louise locking it behind her. “Me too.” Matt widened his eyes with a smile before Louise jumped into his pickup. “If I was a girl that is.” Louise giggled as he put the key in the ignition and pulled away from the sidewalk, all of them heading into Enterprise.

*

*

*

“Thanks again Matt. And for dropping me back too.” She said as they rounded the corner on to Elm Avenue. They had been gone almost all day, Dale, Tyler and Terry heading off to the ranch at noon, leaving Louise and Matt to do as they pleased. They had done some shopping, Matt getting a couple of new shirts and a pair of jeans for his next rodeo, which wasn’t too far away. Louise had suggested that he get a new hat, but he wasn’t having any of it, instead he sat down and watched her try some on, telling her that she looked damn fine and should buy one for herself. Of course, she refused. They hadn’t really stopped smiling all day, both of them catching each other off guard with flirtatious phrases or even just a smiling glance. Louise had to admit
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that she had grown quite font of him, but no matter how much time she spent with Matt, she still couldn’t stop thinking about Vaughn. “Do you want to come in for a coffee, I mean, if you’re not doing anything else that is.” She asked as they neared her house. “Well sure. That’d be great.” He glanced over at her, slowing down ready to pull across her drive. He frowned when he noticed another truck had already taken the space. “Expectin’ anyone?” “Huh?” She sighed as she squinted, a silver pickup sitting across the drive behind her own. Her eyes moved to the man on her front porch looking through the window. “Oh my God.” “D’ya know this guy?” Matt asked as he pulled up in front of the stranger’s truck. “His names Chris.” She said as she put her hand on her head and tried not to look out of the window. “My ex.” “Well now, that’s awkward. He’s standin’ right on your porch.” Matt had a smile in his voice as he watched the man by the door. “He a bit, you know, not there?” “Well, you could say that.” Louise said looking at him. “I don’t know what to do.” He could see the panic in her eyes. “Let’s just go and drop me off later. I don’t want any arguments or anything.” “I tell you what.” Matt leant in a little closer to her, his left hand still on the steering wheel and the engine still running. “How ‘bout we get outta this truck an’ I go with ya, ‘cause I want a coffee anyhow.” “I don’t thin-”

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“If anythin’s said, I can handle him.” The look in his eyes was more than reassuring, but he knew that Louise was still panicking inside. “I don’t know-” “Trust me.” He looked for an answer in her eyes and could feel her shaking slightly. This guy has done somethin’ real bad to get her all wound up like this. “Okay.” Was all she said in reply. He turned off the ignition and touching her right cheek with the palm of his hand, looked deep into her eyes. “You’ll be fine.” With that he opened his door and jumped out, walking around the front of his truck to the passenger side. “Matt, I don’t-” She said, looking at him from the cab of his truck, shaking her head slightly. “Out.” He said, putting his hands on her waist and helping her down. “Hand.” He reached for her hand, entwining his fingers with hers. “Try not to look nervous, he’ll pick up somethin’ ain’t right if ya do.” He whispered into her ear as they started walking towards Chris, who had now turned to face the approaching pair. “Where the hell’ve ya been Lou? I been waitin’ here for Lord knows how long.” Chris said as he came to the edge of the porch, fire in his eyes that seemed to send a chill down her spine. “I’ve been out Chris. What are you doing here and how did you find me?” She tried to keep her voice calm, Matt acknowledging that she was trying her best by giving her hand a quick squeeze. “An’ what the hell are you doin’ with this guy, thinkin’ he looks all good in that cowboy gettup?” Chris was almost raging as he pointed at Matt, Louise cowering back a little. It seemed to be a reflex that she wasn’t able shake.

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“Hey, what seems to be the problem?” Matt asked, trying to keep the atmosphere as calm as possible. He glanced at Chris, sure that he knew him from somewhere, but not quite managing to put his finger on where. “Yeah, you’re with my girl.” Chris moved closer as Matt stood his ground, holding Louise to the spot. “Chris, I’m not your girl anymore. I left, remember?” She was still shaking slightly as she said it, but the words came out as Matt knew she had wanted them too. Strong and confident. “You heard the lady, I think ya should go.” Matt tugged on Louise making her walk alongside him and on to the porch, heading for the door. “Where the hell do you think you’re goin’?” Chris moved back to the door with one step, stopping Matt dead in his tracks. “Chris, just go. Please.” Louise begged him almost, Matt still keeping hold of her hand. “I ain’t goin’ nowhere without ya Lou. You’re comin’ home with me. Now.” He went to grab her free wrist, but Matt, letting go of Louise, caught his forearm before he could take hold of her. She stepped backwards onto the yard again and out of the way of the two men. “Leave. Now.” Matt gave him the same glare that he had given Vaughn that last weekend. “I’m warnin’ you. Go.” His gaze didn’t falter. “What ya gonna do if I don’t, you shit kickin’ sonofabitch?” Chris pushed Matt as hard as he could, Matt losing his footing and Louise having to step aside to stop him from knocking her over. He quickly gained his feet and hurled himself at Chris, pushing him against the wall of the house. His right forearm was against Chris’s neck, left hand pushing on his shoulder to keep him from moving.

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“Try me. I may not look intimidatin’ but I am, an’ I think ya need to pack this shit up an’ move on.” Matt pushed against him even harder, his Resistol hiding Chris’s face from Louise’s view. “C’mon, be a man an’ hit me.” Chris almost mouthed it as Matt pushed down on his windpipe, slowly stopping him getting the air he needed to speak. “I ain’t a man if I hit ya in front of a lady.” He was almost face to face with him, watching as Chris slowly started to turn white. “Chris, I’m not yours anymore and that’s one thing you’re going to have to deal with. Now leave!” Louise shouted the last word, Matt not flinching except slightly in his eyes. “Let me go.” It was barely audible, but Matt heard Chris ’s words all the same. His eyes had started to glaze over, and Matt knew he’d about enough. “If I let go, ya gonna leave?” Matt said calmly but without releasing his hold. “Fine.” Chris whispered, and Matt let his hold loosen on him slowly, just in case he did try anything again. Chris looked at Louise as he walked past her to his pickup truck, Matt not being far behind but stopping as he reached her. He put his hands on her upper arms as they both watched Chris climb into his truck without another word being said. Louise hugged her arms and watched as the pickup reversed slightly before pulling onto the road with a squeal, the sound of the truck disappearing in the distance. “Thank you.” She turned and looked up at Matt with a vast tenderness in her eyes, making his own gaze lighten. The hardness was quickly disappearing now that they were alone. “I mean it. If you hadn’t-”

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“Hey. You have guts in there ya know. I ain’t havin’ you gimmie all the credit.” He smiled down at her as he tightened his grip slightly, pulling her into him in a hug before gently releasing her again. “No I haven’t. I was so scared Matt.” She looked at the ground guiltily as she sat down on the edge of the porch, almost as if she was ashamed. Jesus, she looks so helpless. Matt knelt down on one knee in front of her. His silver gaze was stern yet affectionate as his hands rested gently on her knees. “You’re a strong one Louise, an’ you know it.” He moved his right hand and gently cupped her face, her flinching slightly. “Ain’t nothin’ to be scared of, ‘specially when I’m ‘round.” She looked at him then, tears in her eyes and making them a brilliant blue. She smiled wearily as she watched him stand up straight, but he knew the encounter had worn her out emotionally. He grinned, noticing his buckle catch her gaze as he offered her his hand. “Now, how ‘bout that coffee?”

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Bad Attitude

It had clicked in his mind where he had seen Matt before when he had been held up against the wall of Louise’s house. He had seen in Matt’s eyes that it had hit him too, though the realisation didn’t make an appearance for too long. Matt had been in to the dealership that Chris worked at to buy his truck a few years ago and they had sat down and spoke to each other for a while, discussing the pickup. Chris had asked if he wanted to grab a beer and they had sat in the local bar discussing this, that and the other. He remembered that night specifically as that was the night Louise had yelled at him for being late and not answering his phone. He had argued back and pushed her down the stairs. It was miraculous that she didn’t break anything. She just had a few big bruises on her ribs, another on her back and the last on her thigh. Chris was now pacing the floor of his house, not quite believing that she could do what she had. An’ that cowboy, Matt. He obviously has a thing for Louise, an’ if they weren’t together I think I’d be able to use him. He smiled as he thought about how. Leverage. Good ol’ fashioned leverage. A plan ran around in his head, developing so fast he needed to find a piece of paper and a pen to be able to write it all down before it disappeared. After all, he didn’t want to miss one detail. His plan was complete and utter genius. It had been a rather productive week for Chris. He had found out where she was living and also who she was hanging around with, but one thing he couldn’t believe is how close she was with Matt. He knew that there was someone that she saw a lot of, another cowboy non-the-less, but he didn’t know that she had been seeing more than one. That had made him furious.

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He had also been watching that morning when four of them showed up, and, much to his disgrace, she had let them into her house while she was wearing hardly any clothes. Slut. He punched the wall that was closest to him in a rage before he walked from his living room to the kitchen, still hunting for a pen and a piece of paper. Chris had met Louise on the outskirts of Mobile, Alabama five years ago. Her family had moved to the US when she was a teenager, and had wanted to live near the Southern coast, Chris’s family having lived there for years. He used to see her around every now and again and was completely infatuated by her when she turned twenty one. The fact that she was able to go into bars playing a major part in him spending time with her, and eventually leading to their relationship. Chris had liked her because she was the sort of girl who always got attention wherever she went, with her slim, curvy figure and her English accent. When he had finally managed to get her to go steady with him, he had felt proud of the accomplishment, most of his friends having tried and failed. He had always known that she’d be rather hard to tame as she was quite an outgoing girl and enjoyed the male attention. He especially found it hard to keep her away from the friends she had made that he deemed to be threatening to their relationship and no good for her. Evidently, the first time he’d hit her seemed to drill home that she wasn’t to have anything to do with them anymore. Not long after he had hit her for the first time, she had found out that he had cheated on her with one of his old girlfriends. They had sat down and talked about their relationship, eventually deciding that the best thing for them to do would be to move somewhere that was a little more rural. Chris had said they were more likely to have a better life and the fresh air would be good for both of them.

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They had arrived in Elba due to Chris getting a transfer from the dealership he was working at in Mobile. They had moved without Louise finding work, but by chance she had managed to get a job at the drug store not long after they had settled. He never liked the other girl that worked there, Shelby, but he knew that Louise needed a friend and so put up with her sarcastic and mouthy ways. After all he needed to make sure Louise seemed perfectly normal to the outside world. After a year of living in Elba, Louise had wanted to get an extra job working on a farm, but Chris wasn’t hearing any of it. Wanting to do something like that meant she was a whore. Farm work was man’s work and a woman’s place was in the kitchen, and rightly so. He wasn’t having any girlfriend of his branded and working as a whore. He’d told her time and time again that she was lucky he even let her have a job and friends with the way she treated him, and eventually she got the message. Chris never hit her unless the occasion called for it. More often than not things were resolved with an argument and a threat, ending with Louise on the floor crying and saying sorry for what she had done. In Chris’s view she had never appreciated what he did for her and so needed to be punished. With her being as sturdy as she was it was sometimes very hard to break her, that British skin of hers a lot tougher than anyone would have ever thought. He cringed as he remembered just how hardy she was at times and just how tough it was to put her down. Those days were usually the days when a little more force was needed to bring her back down to Earth. Those were the days when a back hander around her face wouldn’t necessarily do the job, as she’d throw a punch back in his direction. That’s why he had bought his buckle.

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He was very proud of his buckle. It was an eagle that was embossed onto an oval. It was beautiful. Beautiful yet almost deadly. It had so much detailing that it would draw blood. He had only resulted in his belt buckle method of shutting her up after she had walked out on him the first time. She had moved into Shelby’s for a couple of days, wanting things to cool down before she went back. When she had finally arrived home, she hadn’t known what had hit her. The moment the front door had shut, he’d taken off his belt and swung, hitting her square in the jaw, knocking her to the floor. She had to have a week off work to let it heal, her telling her boss that she had forgotten to put her truck in park and it had rolled into her, hitting her square in the mouth. I’ve spent too long without her now. Chris thought as he pulled himself back from his daydreams, eventually finding a pen and paper and writing down his plans. She’s comin’ back here I can say that for one. An’ she ain’t goin’ anywhere this time. She’s gonna be stayin’ with me forever, an’ she’s gonna learn that to be a woman, ya gotta be at home an’ lookin’ after your man. He had a devious look about him as he wrote out his strategies. An’ I will be usin’ this Matt fella too. I should tail him an’ find out a little more ‘bout him an’ Louise, maybe even take a trip to that ranch. No, no, I ain’t showin’ my face there. I’ll find everythin’ out the good ol’ fashioned way. He chewed on the end of his pen, spinning in around in his mouth. An’ if that other shit kickin’ cowboy tries anythin’, he’s not gonna know what’s hit him. An’ I’ll make her watch as I do it, show her what really happens when you disrespect your man. His smile was smug as he scribbled more notes on the paper.

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He was almost laughing as he walked down the steps to the basement that had been sectioned into four different rooms, none of them being finished. The floor was still concrete and had collected dust and dirt from it not really been used, but it would serve Chris and his purpose well. There were lights in each room that hung from wires in the ceiling, and though they weren’t all that great, they suited the setting perfectly. More often than not they swung back and forth if there was any disturbance, but it added to the dank, eerie atmosphere. He was going to teach Louise her lesson in the biggest of the rooms, maybe even set up a camera so that he could watch her from a different room to make sure she didn’t escape. Plus he’d have everything on tape to show her a couple of years later if she ever stepped out of line again. He had decided to keep the second biggest room free, after all he didn’t know if he was going to need it, especially if someone came looking for her and needed to be dealt with accordingly. As for the other rooms, they would be works in progress. He wasn’t sure that he could use them, but if he did, he’d figure something out in due course. He moved to the largest room and stood looking into the dank space, the light that he had switched on giving out an orange glow and not quite lighting up the corners of the room. He stood there with his hands on his hips, and, thinking about things to come, smiled.

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Simple Love

Louise’s alarm had gone off about fifteen minutes ago and she was ju st finishing cleaning her teeth and pulling her jeans on at the same time. She had set her alarm a little earlier than last Saturday so that she actually had the time to drink her coffee without getting it all over her truck. She put her toothbrush in the holder before slipping a long sleeved blue shirt over her white camisole. She didn’t bother doing it up, her thoughts returning back to what had happened late yesterday afternoon. She still couldn’t believe that Chris had found out where she was living, even though she knew it would have been only a matter of time before he had followed her home. What the hell did I ever see in him? Another thing she couldn’t quite believe is how Matt had handled the whole situation. He was so sensitive. I’ve never known a man like him. It had shocked her how gentle he had been, even afterwards when they had sat down in the living room with a steaming cup of coffee. It was strange having all the guys in the house that previous morning, but even stranger when it had just been her and Matt, one on one. She hadn’t had anyone over to her house that wasn’t Shelby, and, to be honest, it had felt rather nice. The only thing was that once he had left, she had felt so alone. Shelby hadn’t answered her phone, and so was obviously out, after all it was a Friday night. That had left Louise feeling very much exposed now that Chris had been to her home. Yes, she knew that Matt had helped to clear him off, but there was something in Chris’s eyes that worried her. It was almost as if he knew that she’d be sleeping alone that night, and wouldn’t be able to escape him if he came

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back. That was the reason why she’d had a crappy night and had hardly slept a wink. As she walked down the stairs, twisting her hair up into a pony tail and still thinking about the close call, there was a knock on the door. She froze. Oh dear God. What if it’s him? She covered her mouth with her hands as she took a step backwards. What if he’s come back for me? He must know I’m alone. Her eyes grew wide as she took a breath and moved back down a couple of steps. She stopped when she felt safe enough to be able to peer around the wall without being seen. She held her breath as she looked, not knowing who to expect. There’s no one there. She moved down another step. Okay, get yourself together Louise. It’s probably just Matt coming to check you’re okay. As she made her way to the front door on her tiptoes, she peered out of the clear glass at the sides. She squinted as she saw a dark figure leaning on the outside wall of the living room, one foot flat against it. As she walked closer her heart racing, she still couldn’t make out who it was. It was only when she opened the door slowly did she let out her breath. “Hey.” Was all he said, not moving. His arms were crossed and his Stetson was pushed forward, Louise instantly recognising both the Southern drawl and the signature pose. It was a relief to see him to say the least and how he looked in the low morning sun caused her breaths to stammer. “Morning. What are you doing here?” She asked him as he stood perfectly still. Damn, he looks good. “Wonderin’ if I could catch a cup o’ coffee?” That was when he lifted his head and looked at her, those brown eyes looking a lot more tired than usual.

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“Yeah, of course. Come on in.” She moved to one side as he pushed himself off the wall, making his way to the door. Louise realised then that he had never been to her house before. “How did you know where I lived, and how long have you been out there for?” She asked. Vaughn removed his boots before answering. “Um, I ain’t stalkin’ you, but I got a call last night.” Louise watched him with a questioning gaze as he righted himself, her closing the door behind him. “A call?” She noticed that he was wearing dark blue jeans instead of his usual black ones, and a black shirt. His shirt was slightly more creased than usual and rolled up to his elbows. Even though he was looking pretty dishevelled, Louise had to confess that he still looked very handsome in a way that she had never seen before. “Yeah.” He replied turning to face her, as she stood with her back almost against the door. Her hand was still around the handle behind her. “Dale called.” “Oh.” Was all she said as she made her way to the kitchen, him following close behind. “Did he tell you what happened?” She walked to the coffee machine and flicked it on, not glancing back at him. “Well sort of.” He hesitated. “Said Matt dropped ya off an’ your ex was outside.” He sat down on one of the stools at the island, watching her collect two mugs from one of the cupboards. “So you came to make sure I was okay this morning?” She turned to face him, her body nestled into the corner of the kitchen units. “Um, not quite.” He leant his forearms on the counter top of the island as he finished, looking out from under his Stetson straight at her. “Try last night.”

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“You mean you got here last night? How come you didn’t knock?” She wasn’t mad but instead was sympathetic. She couldn’t believe that he had been out there all night keeping a watch on her. “I didn’t wanna disturb you. I mean, I got here late an’ thought I’d, ya know, stay outside in case he came back. I saw how you reacted the other day an’ I know he probably ain’t the nicest o’ guys.” He didn’t take his eyes off her as she made two mugs of coffee before walking over to him with his. “You mean you spent all night in your truck? I bet you didn’t sleep a wink.” She said it with a smile as she sipped her coffee. She didn’t bother to sit down but instead stood at the side of the island, only a few feet between them. “Well, neither did you.” He said with a faint smile as he watched her over the top of his mug. “An’ you make a dang good cup of coffee.” “Thank you.” She said as she leant back against the counter top, taking a sip of her own. “And no I didn’t sleep. It’s been a while since I’ve had a restless night like that.” She paused, moving her eyes to the floor and then back to him. “Sorry I didn’t notice your truck, otherwise I’d have invited you in.” “Don’t worry ‘bout it.” He was facing her now, having shifted slightly on the stool. “You look very bright eyed for someone who ain’t had much sleep.” “Well, you look very, erm, ruffled.” She said without trying to sound too mocking, noticing that a slight blush had risen in his cheeks. “Well, unlike you I have been in a truck all night.” He chuckled slightly as he checked his sleeves were still rolled up to his elbows, not taking his eyes off her. “Feel free to freshen up you know. Bathroom’s just over there. And thank you. You didn’t have to.” Her pulse quickened as she took a sneaky step closer and

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watched to see if he would react. Instead he kept his eyes focused on hers, both of them almost being exactly level with one another. “Yeah, I think I might. An’ I know I didn’t have to.” He said as he stood up, stepping towards her. He paused before lightly touching her upper arm. “I just wanted to make sure you were okay.” He gave her a quick smile before moving into the bathroom, shutting the door behind him. Oh my God. Her legs almost buckled underneath her, and she was glad that the counter wasn’t too far away. She felt bad for not noticing his truck outside, but maybe he had wanted it to be that way. She just couldn’t believe a man would do something like that. And it meant a lot. A lot more than he probably realised. “Hey, Vaughn?” She called after him. “Yeah?” Came the voice from behind the door. “I just thought. What’s your surname?” “Why?” “Because I just realised I don’t know it, is all.” She didn’t know why she wanted to know, but she wanted to ask him all the same. “It’s Perriloux.” “Actually, that’s pretty nice. Unexpected, but nice.” She replied with a smile as she took a sip of her coffee. Mines-” “Best, I know.” She heard him say through the door, it obvious he was smiling too. “It’s boring.” “I’ll be the judge o’ that.” He chuckled, Louise’s heart skipping a beat at the simple phrase, suddenly making her a little breathless.

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She finished her coffee as she leant on the island and checked her watch, seeing that it was 6:30am. We’re going to be late if we don’t get going soon. She thought as she heard the bathroom door open and watched as Vaughn walked out, placing the Stetson back on his head. His eyes caught hers as he lifted his head, a smile in them that almost made her heart stop. What the heck is wrong with me this morning? “That better?” He said with a smile before stopping next to her and leaning his side against the island, just in front of the stool he’d been sitting on. “Definitely.” She nodded, looking up at him with a grin as her pulse started to race. He was so close. “But to tell you the truth, I didn’t mind you before.” “You tryin’ to make me feel all shy or what?” He nudged her slightly as his brown eyes stayed focused on her. “Well, what if I am?” Her smile lit her eyes as she said it, but she knew all too well that if they continued, they would never get going to the ranch. “I think we best get goin’ or we’re gonna be late.” He added in a more serious tone. “Yeah, I checked my watch a minute ago. And don’t worry about the mugs, I’ll get them later.” She said as she made her way to the downstairs closet and slipped on her boots. Vaughn followed suit and, once he made sure his jeans were over the top of his boots said, “We’ll go in my truck, if that’s okay?” “Sure is.” She grabbed her jacket and fumbled around in the pocket to find her keys, pulling them out and making her way to the front door. “How come you’re bringin’ your jacket?” He asked as he opened the door.

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“I’m a bit chilly is all.” She said as she locked the door, blowing a kiss to the ginger ball of fluff that had just walked towards the living room. “Well.” He started as they walked towards the pickup. “The heatin’ in this thing is pretty good.” “I guess you needed it last night. Was pretty cool for a change.” Louise turned around to face him as they reached the truck, her back against the passenger door. Vaughn stopped suddenly with a gasp but didn’t move to take a step back. “Yeah, it was.” He said almost in a whisper as he shoved his hands in his front pockets, lifting his shoulders slightly. She’d made him nervous, and she could see it in his eyes. “Thank you.” She spoke quietly before she reached up on her tip toes to kiss his cheek, the longing to do so getting the better of her. Vaughn bent over slightly so that she could reach, it being an instant reaction. She closed her eyes as her lips lightly touched his skin, feeling his jaw tense as she did. He clearly hadn’t expected her to be so close to him, let alone kiss him, even if it was only his cheek. As she broke contact and moved back slightly, she opened her eyes so that she could see his. He looked happily stunned as she shrunk back down to her usual height, his eyes telling her that he definitely wanted more, but also that he wanted to wait for just the right moment. “Well, I guess I should stop out in my truck more often, huh?” He said in disbelief as she looked at him, finally finding the approval in his smile. He hadn’t expected her to kiss him at all, that was obvious, but he seemed to have liked it all the same.

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“Maybe you should, cowboy.” Louise smiled back as she opened the passenger door and climbed in. Vaughn tilted his head as he laughed and ran around to the driver’s side, jumping in behind the wheel with ease. “You are somethin’ else.” He said as he started the V8 and pulling away from the sidewalk. Silence sat between them for a minute before Vaughn chimed in. “Want the stereo on?” He asked as they hit the main highway. “No, I’m good.” She turned in her seat slightly so that she was facing him. “How did Dale know about last night? And why did he ring you?” Her left knee was just touching the seat back as she leant her back lightly against the door. “Well, I guess Matt rang him is all. Told him what happened an’ seems lik e he was a little worried ‘bout you. He didn’t exactly say that I should look out for ya or anythin’ but I guessed that’s what he wanted, plus I couldn’t live with myself if somethin’ happened.” He turned to look at her. “Dale likes you ya know.” Hi eyes were sympathetic yet sad, as if knowing that someone else liked her hurt him slightly. “I don’t mean to sound harsh, but why did Dale ring you? I thought you didn’t get on with all of them at the ranch?” She knew she was prying but couldn’t help herself. “Me an’ Dale ain’t so bad.” He turned to glance at her again, but this time his gaze was warm, almost as if remembering a past memory. “He’s helped me out a time or two.” “Ah, okay. So you two are fine? I guess Matt and Terry were complete assholes then.” She wanted to know a little more about this cowboy feud that was

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going on. After all she did have to work with them, and she knew that not wanting to take sides was sometimes a bit difficult, especially if you didn’t know the full story. “Matt an’ Terry. Now that ain’t somethin’ I wanna discuss at this minute in time.” His voice had changed and Louise realised that she had taken a step too far. He glanced at her again. “It’s a long story.” He paused, the look on his face telling Louise that he was thinking about his next words carefully. Finally he finished, a smile appearing again, if only for a second or so. “I’ll tell ya when we have more time.” At that moment she understood that it would take a lot to make this man angry with her, not that she’d ever want him to be. Even though he was quite reserved, he seemed to have a good heart, which was one reason why she was drawn to him. Fair enough, Matt was handsome and funny, Lord knows no woman would think twice if he asked them out, and she really did enjoy flirting with him. But at the end of the day, he didn’t have what Vaughn did, and to be quite honest she didn’t e ven know what ‘it’ was. There was definitely something about him that she was lured to. “I need to stop asking you these sorts of questions don’t I?” Louise said as she looked down at her boot that was resting on the edge of the seat, tracing the stitching with her finger. “Ask all you want. I’ll let ya know if I ain’t answerin’.” He smiled as he peeked at her playing with the seam of her boots. “Hey, an’ don’t look all down, I’m countin’ on you to keep me goin’ all day. Well, that an’ caffeine.” He laughed as she giggled in response just as they pulled into the ranch, Vaughn parking his truck away from the others again. “You having breakfast?” Asked Louise as she was ready to open the door.

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“No. I tend not to. You go ahead, I’ll see you a little later.” He jumped out of the truck, having switched off the engine, and started to walk towards the yard. Louise slid out and moved to watch him, mesmerized by his movements and the way he scaled the gate. He jumped over it with ease, making her heart skip another beat. “Howdy ma’am.” Came a rather familiar, if not slightly deeper than usual Southern twang, and smiling, she turned around to see Matt had appeared out of nowhere. He was tipping the front of his Resistol in a typical cowboy fashion with a smile on his lips. “You up for some breakfast? Jessie-Lou’s got waffles on.”

*

*

*

“Hey. I didn’t fancy lunch and the guys said you were with Bullitt so.” Louise said as she arrived at the arena and greeted Vaughn with a smile. “I hope you don’t mind.” She leant on the fence that ran around it, her forearms across the top bar. “Hey. Course I don’t mind. Fancied gettin’ his guy out for a run is all.” He trotted over, standing up on his stirrups and gave Bullitt a pat on the neck as he came to a holt in front of Louise. “Hey big guy.” She said as she stepped up on to the fence to pat his neck. Bullitt gave a nappy nod in reply. “He likes you. That’s pretty rare.” Vaughn smiled as he threw his right leg over Bullitts back, jumping down in one graceful move. “That was pretty smooth seeing as he’s a big horse.” She gave him a smile back.

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“Well, I’m full o’ surprises.” He gave her a wink as he jumped up onto the top of the fence and swung his legs over so that he was facing out of the grounds. He sat down, making sure that the heels of his boots were tucked onto the bar below. He reached over to Bullitt behind him and threw his rein over the top bar of the fence, looping it round twice so that he was secure. “Well, I’m sure you are.” She replied as she moved so that her right side was against the fence. She could see him a little better that way. “So, how come ya didn’t want lunch?” He asked looking down at his boots before back at her. “I just didn’t. Still kind of full from earlier.” “Jessie-Lou made waffles, huh?” He smiled. “Yeah, how did you know that?” She laughed as he raised his eyebrows with a grin. “I too used to have breakfast here, but that’s years ago now.” “Well I didn’t know that. So, you normally ride during lunch? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you eat.” She asked as she looked out across the arena to the fields that she could see. “Yeah, if I’m not too hungry, but I had a sub in the truck so I just had that today. An’ I do eat, trust me.” “Okay, I’ll believe you for now.” She paused. “But you’ll have to prove it sooner or later. And that sub must have been at least a day old.” She gave him a telling look, chuckling as she did. “I will. An’ I did get it before I came to scout out your place, so it ain’t that old if that’s what you’re thinkin’.” He glanced at her from under his hat, his head tilted to the ground so that she couldn’t see his eyes.

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“You never know.” She stood and looked over the fields again and smiled. Vaughn turned so that he was facing his horse, and pulled on his rein slightly. Bullitt walked closer and putt his head between him and Louise. She watched as he unhooked the rein and tucked it out of the way before giving Bullitt a pat on the neck. “Be careful.” He said to Bullitt as he watched him gallop off across the dirt. “He likes to have a run without me sometimes, but I leave everythin’ on in case I gotta go chasin’ after him.” He turned back to Louise. “If you ain’t noticed the fences are shorter in this here arena. He can scale ‘em without thinkin’. Though now he’s usually pretty good, not that I don’t keep an eye on him anyhow.” Vaughn turned back to Bullitt who was stretching his legs, glad to be untied from the fence. “What would you have called him if you hadn’t of called him Bullitt?” Louise asked as she followed the horse with her eyes. Vaughn had moved and was now sitting facing her, his left leg resting on his other knee, hands on the ankle of his left boot. “Now that’s a story worth tellin’.” He said with a laugh. “I was originally gonna call him Charger. Bit ironic huh? But I couldn’t have two things with the same name, so I thought o’ some other catchy names, like Rocket or Cyclone, for, well it must’ve been over two weeks. Just didn’t sound right though. Couple o’ days later I was sortin’ out some boxes in my basement when I found an ol’ favourite movie o’ mine an’ put it on. Liked it ‘cause o’ the car chase in it. Anyhow, I was half way through it an’ it just hit me. Bullitt. If you were a car fan you’d get it.” She noticed him watch her as she took in everything he had said, smiling as she realised the significances of the name. He’s obviously into his muscle cars. She smiled to herself. “Oh, believe me I do, and that is actually pretty damn clever, never mind the fact that you obviously

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know your muscle.” Louise chuckled as her eyes met his, her laugh slowly turning into just a smile. “I thought so. Turns out he’s fast too, so it suits him just fine. An’ yes, I do have a secret flare for cars.” “I don’t mean to get too personal again, but what did you do when you competed in rodeos?” “Well, I think I can bring myself to tell ya that one too.” His warm smile was more than enough to make her melt, and for some reason today, more so than usual. “I did a bit of tie-down ropin’ now an’ again, but mainly bareback an’ saddle bronc.” “Hence the buckle?” She tried not to look, but couldn’t help herself. “Yeah, pretty much. Learnt to break in horses when I was young an’ was pretty good at it. Partly the reason why I’m here.” He looked out across the arena again, a sign to Louise that he wasn’t goin g to say anymore on the subject. It was evidently a tough memory for him to deal with, but she appreciated the amount he shared with her. “Ah. So did you break in these horses yourself then?” She asked, wanting to see how far he would go, but not pushing too hard. “A few yeah. Strangely enough Chute was one of ‘em.” “Really? Well I wouldn’t have known that.” She was shocked seeing as Matt and Vaughn didn’t actually get on, but strangely enough she felt secretly proud of his achievement. “Ain’t you bored o’ me yet?” He flashed her a cheeky grin and she laughed. “Surprisingly enough I’m not. I actually enjoy spending time with you. Why, are you trying to get rid of me?” She placed her left hand on her hip as she said it.

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“Nope. Just that people don’t normally wanna be ‘round me is all.” “Well, I couldn’t imagine why. And I’m not people.” She looked to the left of them and frowned slightly. “What’s all that over there?” She pointed to a mass of metal gates that she hadn’t noticed before. “They’re chutes for livestock an’ a couple o’ buckin’ chutes. Rodeo practise or just general foolin’ ‘round. Ain’t you ever seen a rodeo before?” He asked with a questioning look. “Yeah, once or twice. Didn’t realise you were all set up here though.” “Yeah, have been for years.” “Did you do some practising here then? I mean, when you, you know?” She asked it gently as he was looking over towards the chutes. It seemed he was purposefully trying to avoid eye contact with her, almost like he knew what was coming. “Actually I did.” He went silent for a minute, bowing his head slightly. “An’ I was the one to set it all up.” “Well it looks really good.” She said trying to end the subject there. She had noticed that Vaughn was obviously getting a little uncomfortable with the amount of detail they were getting in to. “Well, I best get this guy back to the stables.” He said as he swung his legs back over the fence and jumped down into the arena. Louise watched him jog across the dirt towards his black horse, her gaze fixed on him again and not being able to pull away. He was so blunt when he spoke and never went into detail about anything, and maybe that was the reason she found him so captivating. Even just the way he walked was enough to make her pulse race.

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As he put his right foot in Bullitt’s stirrup and threw himself into the saddle, she couldn’t help her heart skip a beat. Damn. She thought as she watched him ride Bullitt at a gallop towards the stables, the gate in the fence already being open enough for them to squeeze through. Anyone in my shoes would seriously think they were dreaming. She thought as she watched them round the corner and ride into the stable, Vaughn slowing Bullitt down to a steady trot as they did. Louise shifted her feet slightly and after another minute, decided to climb up and perch on top of the fence. She tucked the heels of her boots behind the bar underneath, and rested her hands on the top to help her balance. She enjoyed being out in the open air and had wanted to work on a ranch for a long time, and now she was finally here, she wanted to take in every minute of it.

*

*

*

Vaughn had just placed Bullitt’s tack back, giving him a quick rub as he passed him on his way out of the stables and back to Louise. As he rounded the corner and started to walk over to where she was sitting, he watched her from underneath his Stetson. He saw that she was looking over to the left, chin tucked into her shoulder, and just that image of her made his heart thump in his chest. She looks amazin’. His thoughts made him smile, and he knew that nothing else could distract him from his focus on her. As he drew closer he could sense her watching him. He felt the air slowly start to thicken with every step he took, and he knew she could feel it too. “Hey, you’re sittin’ in my space.” He said as he finally reached her, leaning against the fence on her left..

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“You ran off.” She replied playfully. “Technically I rode off.” He corrected with a smile as he crossed his right ankle over his left, his forearms resting on the top of the fence. “So we’re getting technical now are we?” She tilted her head and lifted her eyebrows with a smile. “You know full well what I mean. Seein’ as you’ve done askin’ so many questions, I just wanna know one thing.” “Go ahead.” The atmosphere had turned a little tense as he asked. “This Chris fella.” He lifted his eyes to hers. “Bad or worse?” “Do you have a better word than just worse?” Louise sighed. “He gave me material but never emotional. If you understand what I mean.” “I didn’t mean to upset you or anythin’.” Vaughn looked over to her with sympathetic eyes, understanding how much it must be hurting her to talk about it. Heck, I know the feelin’ too well. “No, that’s okay. I’m just glad I got out when I did. You can kind of guess the rest of the story.” She gave him a weak smile, it not quite reaching her eyes. “I’ll open up a bit more when I’m ready, it’s just that it’s a bit, you know.” “Yeah, I know what ya mean. Erm, there’s somethin’ else I wanna ask you, but feel free to say no if ya don’t wanna.” He was nervous and just hoped that Louise hadn’t spotted it. He hated being nervous. “Ask away.” She said as she buried her chin into her shoulder again as she looked at him. Wow. He saw a flash in her eyes and he knew that she would say yes, no matter what the question would have been. “Do you wanna go for somethin’ to eat

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with me next week? Maybe, I dunno, Tuesday?” He said it shyly, but didn’t break eye contact. “Why Tuesday? And that’s a yes by the way.” She smiled. “Okay, good. An’ I dunno. I like Tuesday. For some reason it sounds nice.” He shrugged as he said it, chuckling at the light-hearted frown that had appeared across her face. “Okay.” She laughed. “See, I like Thursday, but only because it’s closer to the weekend than any other day without it actually being the weekend. But it sounds crappy compared to Tuesday.” “What ‘bout Friday? That’s a week day.” He smiled again, not quite believing what they were talking about, but enjoying it all the same. “Well.” She started. “Sometimes Friday is classed as the start of the weekend, so it doesn’t count.” He shook his head with a laugh. He knew she was right, it had just never occurred to him before now. “So technically speaking, Tuesday is one o’ the middle days o’ the week then?” He tried to sound serious, but he knew his eyes had given him away. She really does have the strangest effect on me. She laughed when he said technically. “There’s that word again. Technically. And yeah, thinking about it, it could be. That and it’s a lot nicer than Wednesday anyhow.” “My God, you really are one of a kind.” He said as he shook his head again in amazement. “You know that?” He looked at her square in the eyes, seeing that sparkle again. That amazing sparkle that made his heart flutter. “I seem to be hearing that a lot at the minute.” She held his gaze. “Well.” He shifted a little closer. “You are.”

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Horsepower

“I ain’t messin’, just get them calves in there an’ let me practise. You know I got a big one comin’ up next week, Terry, don’t need you messin’ up my chances by bein’ an ass.” Matt shouted as Terry was trotting about on Redeye. “God, you’re such a dick sometimes. I’m just havin’ a little fun is all, an’ the only guy that’s gonna mess up your chances is you. Plus we ain’t gettin’ paid for today, so I can take all the time I want. ” Terry hollered back before re-rounding up the calves and directing them into one of the holding pens by the chutes attached to the arena. It was 9am and yesterday Jerry had told everyone that Matt was having the day to practise his events for the rodeo he was competing in. He had said that they wouldn’t be needed to work, but they could feel free to come along and get stuck in anyway. After all Matt would need a few there to keep track of times and generally help out, especially with steer wrestling. “I ain’t in the mood Terry, so don’t make me come ‘round there an’ kill you. An’ I know we ain’t bein’ paid, so shut your pie hole, or I swear to God.” Matt was sitting on Chute’s saddle in the dust, his feet in the stirrups stretching it out. It was going to take him almost a week to travel down to Arizona, and so was glad that Jerry had let him use this Sunday to practise. He wouldn’t be able to find the time during the week, and he was going to make the most of it. “Hey Matt.” Said Louise as she approached him sitting on the saddle, his Resistol covering his eyes as he concentrated. “Nice of Jerry to let you practise. It’ll be nice to see you doing your thing.”

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“Hey sugar.” He said in reply as he looked up at her. “Yeah I know. Chance for me to show off, huh? An’ I like your hair like that too.” He gave her a pleasing smile as he moved his feet from the stirrups and stood up, leaning against the fence. “Thanks.” She said as she shyly stroked the back of her head, her hair being half up and half down. “You’re going to have to bear with me, I don’t know much about this sort of thing.” She shrugged. “Ain’t really much to know, you’ll pick it up just by watchin’. I’ll have to show you a few bits later.” He winked before looking over to Terry who had just finished shutting the gate on the calves. “Looks like I’m nearly ready to go.” He looked back at Louise. “Terry’s been such a pain today.” “When is he not?” She laughed as she looked over at him trotting over on Redeye. “He tellin’ you I’m bein’ a pain? ‘Cause I tell ya I ain’t. He’s just impatient.” Terry smirked as he approached. “I swear, one day boy.” Matt pointed to him as he kicked Redeye, sending him into a gallop around the outside of the chutes. “I knew there was a reason why I wanted to be here today.” Louise rolled her eyes as she moved to lean over the fence on her forearms, outstretching them into the grounds. “You’ll have fun. Maybe get your new best friend out here too, just so I can show him up. What d’ya say?” He said it mockingly as he glanced at her sideways, crossing his arms. “My God, what is it with you two? He won’t tell me, you won’t tell me, hell even Terry won’t tell me. And Dale, well, he isn’t here.”

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“You missed out Ty.” He couldn’t help but smile as she raised her brows. “Yeah, Dale’s been called to do some work down in Enterprise for a few days. An’ let’s just say that we’re both at fault on this one.” He looked down at the ground before turning his body to face her, leaning on his left side. “Sorry if it’s awkward, but it ain’t my place to say. Talk o’ the Devil.” He nodded over to the stables where Vaughn had just appeared from, holding his saddle in his free hand, Bullitt in tow. “I’m gonna go get Chute set up, so I’ll leave y’all alone.” “Okay. See you later.” She said as he lifted himself off the fence and picked up his saddle, moving over to where Chute was waiting.

*

*

*

“Hey.” Vaughn said as he dropped the saddle to the ground. “What’d he want?” His eyes watched Matt walk around to the back of the chutes. “Nothing, just said it was nice that Jerry let him practise today.” She answered as she turned to face him. “So, how come you’ve got this guy out?” “Well, I was gonna show y’all what I can do, as soon as he’s had enough that is.” He gave her a wink as Bullitt put his head over his shoulder for Louise to pet him. He almost knocked off Vaughn’s Stetson. “Hey you. Wait your turn.” He said to his horse with a laugh. “Oh Bullitt.” Louise walked a little closer to them to rub his nose as he pushed Vaughn to one side so that he could get to her. “My God, horse.” Vaughn gasped as he shifted to one side. “He ain’t ever been like this before. Normally hates everyone except me.” He laughed and she joined him as Bullitt nudged her arm for her to fuss him some more.

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“Awww, he just wants some affection.” She glanced at Vaughn as she put her head against Bullitts playfully, smiling as she did. He couldn’t believe how well his horse had taken to her. Usually he was funny with strangers, especially women, but for some reason he seemed to want to be around her. Who doesn’t wanna be ‘round her? “He’s a pain.” He said as he gave him a light whack and a rub on his side. “Ain’t ya boy?” He smiled at Louise with approval, watching as she bowed her head slightly, obviously to hide a blush. It was clear that she hadn’t had any bond with a horse before, and he was secretly glad that it was with Bullitt. Even if it does mean she’s only spendin’ time with me ‘cause o’ him. “He’s a charmer.” She replied as Vaughn rested his hand on his back. “Like his owner?” Oh heck. It came out of his mouth before he had chance to stop it. “Maybe.” Louise had a suggestive tone to her voice that took him by surprise, a devilish look creeping into his eyes. He bowed his head before looking back at her with a smile. “Someone’s had a better night’s sleep.” She said suggestively. “Yeah, I did, thanks.” He knew from her tone that today was going to be a very interesting day. He watched her walk towards him slowly, running her hand down Bullitts back as she did. He knew that she could see him watching her hand move. His gaze moved back to her suddenly, the flames in his eyes giving away the fact that he was craving her just that little bit more. “Good. I’m glad you did.” She said as she arrived in front of him, her head tilted towards Bullitt as she looked up underneath his Stetson.

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He watched her for what seemed like an eternity, his pulse quickening with every second. He felt a blush rising and turned his gaze quickly to look across the arena. “Something up?” She said as she followed his gaze. “He just gets to me is all.” He said, watching Matt finish his preparations. “Are you going to stay and watch or are you heading on up the field? Jerry said something about fencing needing to be checked over during the next couple of days.” She had hesitated a little as she shifted her feet. “I was going to come with you and actually do something constructive. ” She said it rather than asking, but Vaughn understood it was meant as a question. “I may go up at lunch, get outta the way.” He turned to face her with a frown. “How come ya wanna work when you ain’t gettin’ paid?” “I don’t have to be getting paid to do something I enjoy you know.” She gave him a smile as she saw the frown lift from his eyes. “Besides, I bought lunch with me today, so I can just bring it along.” “Only if I can have somethin’.” He nudged her lightly, the slight heaviness of the air lifting as he did. “An’ I think you will be fine on Hyco, so feel free to join me.” “Good. And I think I will. And I’ll only let you have something if you’re really nice to me this morning.” She gave him a nudge back with her elbow as Terry galloped past them towards the holding pens. “Y’all comin’?” He shouted back at them, motioning them to get down to the chutes so that they could watch, and maybe even help out if they were needed. “C’mon. I guess I can stand to watch him this once.” Vaughn sighed as he picked up Bullitts saddle and started to walk the route Terry had just taken. “Erm,

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sounds strange, but d’ya wanna hold him?” He looked down at Louise offering her Bullitt’s rein. “You sure?” She asked, a shocked look on her face. “No, actually. But I think he is.” He tilted his head to his horse who was pulling slightly to get closer to Louise. “There you go.” He gave her the rein and Bullitt happily walked alongside her, Vaughn moving over to Louise’s right. They made their way over to the chutes, not really saying anything else on the short journey. When they arrived, Vaughn took Bullitt’s rein off Louise and looped it around one of the spare metal fences that was sitting by itself and had Redeye attached to it. He threw the saddle he was carrying on to Bullitt’s back, securing it in place before looking across to Louise. “You do know that you’re going to have to talk me through this because I have no clue on anything.” She said as he walked over and scaled the metal fence of the arena, swinging his legs over and perching on the top. “I’m sure you’ll pick it up. You comin’ or ya gonna stand over there?” He said as he tucked his heels in behind one of the metal bars and motioned for her to join him. Without another word she stepped up onto the fence, resting her forearms on the top bar.

*

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*

Terry had made sure the barrier rope was all set and in place across the box that Matt was positioned in before heading back round to the timer. He hit a button and suddenly the calf sprinted forward, Matt waiting a few seconds for the calf to get

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a head start before kicking Chute into a run. He swung the lariat above his head before throwing it, roping the calf around the head. Chute leaned backwards as Matt dismounted his horse and raced over to the calf, tossing it on its side before tying three of its legs together. He quickly stood and threw his hands in the air, obviously signalling to Terry to stop the timer. Matt then walked back to Chute, remounted, and they walked forward a couple of steps, making the rope slack. After a few more seconds, the calf attempting to wriggle free, Terry called time and Matt jumped back off Chute and removed the rope from its neck. He untied the legs before jumping back onto his horse and directing the calf to the chute that hadn’t been used. “Nice one for your first, eight point nine.” Terry shouted to Matt as he flicked the switch to open the chute doors for him, the calf running into the spare holding pen before the doors shut. “Ain’t my best first time though.” Matt said back as he trotted towards the box, Terry resetting everything for him as he arranged the pigging string and lariat again. Terry released the next calf, Matt repeating the same manoeuvre again before Terry shouted. “Seven point eight.” “Awesome.” Matt exclaimed as he made his way over to the fence where Louise and Vaughn were. “You havin’ fun yet?” He said to Louise without even acknowledging Vaughn. “Well, you’re just getting started, so I’ll tell you later.” She replied with a laugh as he gave her a wink and started to make his way back to the box. “Ass.” He heard Vaughn say it under his breath and slowly made Chute come to a stop. “Well, that’s really nice Vaughn. When are you actually going to tell me what went on with you two, because, frankly, I’m starting to get a little sick of this.” Louise

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had a harsh tone to her voice that surprised him. He turned to face the two on the fence. Even from where he was he could see the fury flashing across Vaughns eyes, and he prayed that she hadn’t made him angry. “Okay, you really wanna do this? Right now?” Matt watched as Vaughn shifted, his right hand holding his weight on the fence as he swung his leg over so that he was facing her. Matt flinched as he watched Louise jump slightly and unbalance herself, missing her footing and slipping off the bar she was standing on. “Why do you even wanna know?” “I want to know because I hate feeling guilty Vaughn, that’s why.” She had her hands on her waist and was looking up at him, the slight fall having no obvious effect. Thank the Lord. Last thing I want is her hurt. Matt stayed where he was as he watched Vaughn jump down and grasp hold of the metal bar that ran along the right side of Louise’s head. He watched, resisting the urge to ride over there and give him what for. He knew that Louise would stand her ground, and she did, even as Vaughn leant into her. “He hurt me, Louise.” He heard the pain in Vaughn’s voice and closed his eyes tight. “He really hurt me.” He opened them slowly and watched as Vaughn bowed his head and walked back over to Bullitt. He untied him and flung himself into the saddle before riding off up the field, Louise not taking her eyes off him as he went. Oh heck. The pang of guilt hit him in the lowest part of his stomach. He knew she’d either be upset or angry and wanting answers. “Hey, you okay?” Matt said as

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he galloped over to her across the arena, leaning on the fence when he finally came to a stop. “No. No I’m not. And someone needs to start talking around here.” She stepped back up onto the second from bottom bar of the fence. “Well, I’m sure he will sugar. Wanna ride over to where me an’ the idiot are?” He smiled at her and she smiled back, it lighting up her eyes even if only for a second or two. “Yeah, why not.” She said as she climbed the rest of the fence and swung over the top, Matt moving forwards and standing slightly so that she had enough room to climb onto Chute’s back. “Ready?” He said as he glanced back at her over his shoulder. “As I’ll ever be.” She replied and they trotted over to where Terry was as he clicked a button on a remote with a smile. Suddenly the air was filled with ‘Ain’t Going Down (‘Til The Sun Comes Up)’. “Since when was there a CD player and speakers here?” Louise laughed as Matt stopped Chute next to the timer. She put her foot onto one of the bars and pulled herself off the horse and onto the fence. “You know that metal box by the spare railin’ Redeye is attached to?” Terry started. “Well, that there has a player in it. There’s one speaker over there.” He pointed across to the far end of the arena where you could only just make out a small box on the outside. “An’ there’s one just there.” He finished as he pointed to another box that was at their end on the left. “I tell you what, that’s really cool.” Louise said with a smile as the song changed to ‘Burn It Off’. Matt watched her climb over the top bar and join Terry on

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the other side of the fence. She climbed down to the second from bottom bar and stood so that she was tall enough to see over. “Yeah I know.” Said Terry as both of them followed her gaze over to a couple of metal fenced boxes that weren’t connected to anything. “Buckin’ chutes.” Matt said as he noticed the frown on her face. “Explain.” She looked over to him as he stayed sitting on Chute who was shifting his feet a little. “We don’t really use ‘em anymore, but that’s where you get on a horse or bull when you’re doin’ bareback, saddle bronc or bull ridin’. They just get moved over here, an’ the front o’ those livestock chutes an’ the box gets unhooked. They just fit right on in. Genius really, an’ it’s ‘bout the only thing I’ll ever commend Vaughn for.” He said the last part as he made his way back to the box and waited for Terry to set the barrier up again. “You guys really need to get me going on this stuff, because I’m understanding the skill, just not everything else.” She said as she leant up on her tip toes. “Don’t worry darlin’, Terry’ll get ya to time this next one an’ I’ll explain it to you more when I’m ready for a coffee, which won’t be long now.” He said as he rewound his pigging sting, glancing up at her with an affectionate smile.

*

*

*

Matt practised for another forty minutes, Terry shouting out the times after each run and laughing at Louise when she fell off the railing a couple of times, his shouts catching her by surprise. Soon enough Matt had had enough of roping and

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left the arena to grab a cup of coffee out of the flask that they had bought with them. Louise had slowly got the hang of the timing, Terry explaining a couple of basics about it to her, but he had held back on the rest. “I can’t believe that last one.” Louise said running to greet him as he dismounted Chute, looping the rein over one of the bars on the spare fence. “Yeah I know. Seven point three. That’s a champions score right there.” He smiled back as he turned to face her, picking her off the ground and giving her a hug. She threw her arms around his shoulders as he swung her around, throwing her head back and laughing before he put her back on the ground. “Get a room.” Said Terry as he leant against the holding pen and watched them. “You havin’ fun now?” Matt replied after narrowing his eyes at Terry. Louise felt him gently push on her back, walking her away from him and his stare. “I guess I have to answer this time don’t I?” She said playfully as she walked beside him, the fence turning from metal to wood as they got quarter of the way down. “Well, yeah, I think you do.” He nudged her before swinging himself onto the wooden fence and settling on the top with his heels tucked in. She stopped in front of him. “This is a good CD.” She was purposefully bypassing the question, knowing it would drive him mad. “I know, it’s mine. Anyhow, you answerin’ or do I have to force it out o’ you?” He leaned forward, crossing his arms. “If I said no, what are you going to do about it?” She leant into him with her head bowed but kept eye contact, there only being half a foot between them.

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“Well, I’m sure there’s gotta be somethin’ ‘round that’ll help ya say otherwise.” He didn’t move, mischievous flickers lighting up his eyes. “How about you explain tie down roping to me, and then I may just say it was worth getting up for.” She didn’t move, but instead watched the response in his face with raised eyebrows. “Okay, I’ll explain it.” He said with a laugh as he shifted around so that he was facing back down to the chutes. His left foot was still on the bar of the fence, while his boot was resting on his left knee. Louise moved to stand at his side, her arms folded and resting in the fence. “For starters ya have the roper, that’s me, an’ the calf has to be between two hundred an’ twenty an’ two hundred an’ eighty pounds. They stick a lightweight rope ‘round the calf’s neck when it’s in the chute an’ attach it acr oss the box that the roper’s in. It allows the calf to get a head start, an’ if the roper breaks the barrier, ten seconds is added to the time. We tend to call it a cowboy speedin’ ticket.” He laughed as he glanced down at her, making sure she was taking it all in. “What I have to do is make sure I kick Chute into a full speed gallop at the right time so I can chase after the calf without gettin’ me a ticket, an’ get that lariat swingin’ ready to rope it ‘round the neck, then Chute pulls back on the rope so there’s no slack while I dismount an’ toss the calf on its side. If the calf falls ya have to let it right itself before ya toss it, that’s called flankin’ by the way. Then ya gotta tie any three legs with that piggin’ string ya seen me with between my teeth.” “Right, I think I’m following you.” Louise said as she glanced up at Matt, him demonstrating with his hands almost as if he was excited to be talking about it all. “Well, good.” He gave her a smile before carrying on. “Once the legs are tied, you gotta throw up your hands to call time. Then ya have to get back on your horse

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an’ walk forward slightly, slackenin’ the rope an’ wait for another six seconds to see if the calf wriggles free. If it does, ya get no time, an’ if it doesn’t you do.” He looked down at Louise again. “Simple huh?” “Well, it sounds it, but I bet it isn’t.” “You’d be more than right with than one sugar.” He said as he nudged her with his elbow again. “Took me years to grasp the hang of it, but I guess I was in the right situation to.” “At a guess you grew up on a farm then?” She asked as the song changed. “Pretty much. Pop was an ol’ style rancher, so I started real young. Little britches an’ stuff. He got a bit much though as I got older, so I moved ‘round a bit, an’ eventually found my place here ‘bout five years ago now. What ‘bout you?” “Well, I had a rubbish childhood before I moved over here with mum and dad. We actually moved to just outside of Mobile, where I met my ex. Crap went off and so we moved up here. A kind of ‘escape to the country’ move. Like I said the other day, we broke up about six months ago and here I am.” She told him as he moved back to his first position on the fence, Louise moving to lean against it next to him. “You don’t give much away d’ya?” He asked as he looked over to her, leaning back on his hands slightly that were either side of him on the top of the fence. “Memories.” She started. “And not all of them good ones. I’ll tell you more when you tell me more.” She nodded, a sign that she was done talking about the past. “Blackmail.” He said, widening his eyes at her slightly. “Sarcasm.” Both of them burst into laughter, neither of them realising that Vaughn was watching them from the row of trees across the field.

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“You sure you ain’t gonna tell me anythin’ else ‘bout your movin’ here?” Matt said between chuckles. “Nope, I’m not saying another word.” She screwed up her face with a childish grin before relaxing and smiling properly. “Hey, I like your buckle. Never really noticed it before now.” “Now, missy, that there ain’t somethin’ you should be lookin’ at.” He looked down at her, lifting his eyebrows. “Nice ain’t it?” “It’s lovely.” She replied as she looked at the wording scrawled across half of it that read ‘All American Cowboy’. There was a small motif of a bull rider in the corner, a rope design flowing across it and outlining the rectangle. “An’ yeah, I won the county rodeo one year for ridin’ a bull an’ my pop gave it me. It’s all engraved on the back an’ everythin’. I would never do it again though. Those bull rider guys are crazy.” He said it as she frowned at the picture. “Ah, right. Proud memory though?” She asked with a smile. “Definitely. Scariest eight seconds o’ my life, not to mention I just missed gettin’ trampled by the dang thing. I’m too tall anyhow, most the guys are ‘bout your height, maybe a little taller, but not much. Low centre o’ gravity ‘nd all that. I tower over ‘em.” “Damn. Well, I can safely say it’s a nice buckle and I’m proud of you for even considering it, let alone doing it.” She looked at him as he raised his eyebrows at her. “Really, I am. I wouldn’t do it.” “Well, thanks.” He put his arm around her shoulders and pulled her to him in a loose hug, her leaning her shoulders into him as he did. “An’ you’re a girl, so you couldn’t anyhow.”

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She pulled back from him slightly before giving him a shove. “I might be a girl but I have a stronger pain threshold than you.” She chuckled. “What does the engraving say?” She smiled as he released his grip. “Well, it says, ‘most anybody can be a cowboy, but it takes a dang genius to make money at it’ an’ to be honest it really does. That’s why a lot o’ guys that rodeo still hold down jobs when they get home. Rodeo ain’t guaranteed to make y’all a lot o’ money, unless you really are a pro, an’ even then it ain’t certain.” He had a more serious look in his eye than before, and she understood then that his lifestyle choice wasn’t easy and certainly wasn’t as glamorous as some people made out. “Well, you’ve got to love being on the road and seeing different places? I love to travel.” She leant her face on her hand, her elbow on the fence, and looked out across the field to the row of trees. She didn’t know why, but she felt compelled to do so, something drawing her to the dark undergrowth. She didn’t realise that Vaughn was looking straight back at her, hiding just out of sight. “Let me put it this way.” He started as he turned his head to look at her. “I can spend four months on the road an’ can’t wait to get home, but I can spend two weeks at home an’ then can’t wait to get back on the road. An’ ya never much get to see the places, ‘cause more often than not y’all are back on the road an’ off to the next rodeo before you even have time to think. The gals are great though.” He gave her a wink as she looked back at him. “Thanks for that.” She said as she shoved him slightly. He wasn’t quite ready for it and unbalanced himself as he laughed, almost falling off the fence. “Hey, I could’ve died.” He laughed as he steadied himself, Louise erupting into laughter.

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“Cowboy up.” She giggled, slowly backing away from him to get a head start should he race after her. “Cowboy up?” He was still laughing as he said it. “I’ll teach you to cowboy up.” And with that he jumped off the fence and chased after her. With her head start, Louise managed to scale the fence before Matt had chance to catch up. She ran across the arena looking back at him, her laughter stopping her from doing anything more than a light jog. Soon enough Matt had caught her, grasping her by the arm and pulling her down onto the dirt floor, both of them on their backs and creased over with laughter. She watched as Matt made sure his Resistol was still sitting on his head still. “You’ve got me all dirty.” She said through a panted breath as she tried to control her laughing and not quite able to. Matt rolled over and sat across her stomach, knees on either side of her in the dirt. “That was the plan.” He said with a laugh. “An’ ya know you ain’t gettin’ away from me. Like Dale said last week, I’m the best tie down roper three States over.” “Okay, okay, I give.” She said as she squirmed slightly under his weight, finally giving up and lying still. She sighed as she finally stopped laughing and looked up into his grey eyes, his signature smile dancing across them mischievously. “You are so heavy.” “The cheek. Want me to let ya go?” He taunted. She crossed her arms over her chest, there being no need for an answer. “You ain’t gonna run off?” “Now why would I do that?” She answered as he rolled off her and sat on the ground to her left. She sat herself up and shook her head to free the dust from her

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hair. “I am so glad I wore a brown shirt.” She said as she looked over at Matt, his arms around his knees. “Maybe you just wanna wear me out, huh?” His gaze moved back to the chutes. “You ready to see some steer wrestlin’? Looks like Terry has changed the livestock ‘round already.” At that moment they both heard the sound of a galloping horse, it startling Louise. They looked across the field to where the trees were. Louise’s heart started to race as she watched Vaughn on Bullitt racing over towards the arena. She could see that he was angry, but there was something else in his eyes. Something she couldn’t quite put her finger on. And that something pulled at her.

*

*

*

“Matt.” Vaughn said, Bullitt slowing to a stop. “Vaughn.” Well. This is gonna be interestin’. The expression on Matts face had suddenly turned serious, the smile having evaporated from his eyes as he stared up at his rival. He could sense that Louise didn’t quite know whether to stay or to walk away towards Terry at the chutes, who, he noticed, was sitting on top of the metal fencing watching everything. “Erm, guys?” Louise started. “Darlin’ I think you should go an’ sit with Terry a minute.” Matt said leaning into her again, but not taking his eyes off Vaughn who was still by the fence, Stetson low over his eyes once again.

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“Okay. Whatever.” She replied as she started to walk, only looking back once as she did. The two men waited until she was out of earshot, and soon enough she was. Matt crossed his arms as he made his way over to Vaughn, Bullitt getting agitated and shifting his feet. He could obviously feel the intense atmosphere between the two men. Matt stopped and put his right foot up on the bottom bar, tilting his head so that he could look up and underneath Vaughn’s Stetson, just catching his eyes. “You got a nerve, ya know that?” “I ain’t the one with the nerve.” Vaughn replied. “So you enjoy upsettin’ her then? I don’t think I’ve ever really seen you be nice to her.” He took his foot off the fence and moved closer, seeing Bullitt flinch. “You know darn well I am, not that it’s any o’ your business.” Vaughn leaned over the side of his horse towards Matt, the air becoming so thick you could cut it with a knife. “I’m the one that has to pick up the pieces, as usual, so yeah, seems like it is my business.” “Yeah, an’ seems like you forgot that I was meant to be your best bud.” Vaughn had fire in his eyes as he said it, Matt feeling slightly uneasy as a pang of guilt hit his chest. “That was years ago man, I’m talkin’ ‘bout now. “An’ she ain’t a toy you can just throw away when the goin’ gets tough.” He pointed over to where Louise was sitting with Terry, and prayed that she couldn’t hear them.

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“You’d know all ‘bout that, huh?” He stood his ground as Vaughn lowered himself a little more. “You need to keep your hands off, ‘cause this time I ain’t gonna be so forgivin’, if ya know where I’m comin’ from.” Matt stepped up on the fence to close the gap between them, the brims of their hats almost touching. “C’mon, try me. An’ she ain’t yours. Or how ‘bout we settle this with a best time, huh? Or you forgot how to rope? Champ.” “Really think this is all gonna be settled by ropin’ calves? This ain’t ever gonna go away, an’ you know it.” If he hadn’t of been so angry Matt knew he would have laughed at the suggestion. “I’d much rather settle it outta the saddle.” “I ain’t gonna fight you Vaughn. Didn’t work last time, so how will it now? An’ its steers not calves.” “Steers? Well then that changes things slightly. An’ I hope a horn busts ya ribs.”

*

*

*

“Here we go again.” Terry said to Louise as she watched Matt walk over to Chute who was still attached to the single fence. He gave her a ‘don’t even ask’ look before she turned and jumped off the fence and started to make her way to Vaughn. Perfect. She rolled her eyes as the song on the player changing yet again, this time to ‘Cherry Pie.’ by ‘Warrant’. “I don’t think you should watch this.” Vaughn said as she approached him, now off Bullitt and not bothering to look up at her. “May get messy.” “Can you just be nice to me for more than five minutes without being temperamental? And it would be nice to know what you’re thinking every now and

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again instead of me guessing.” She had her arms crossed, but she noticed pain flash across this barely visible eyes. “Yeah, ‘cause you gimmie the pleasure o’ knowin’.” He lifted his head and smiled at her, but one that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “I know you and Matt don’t get on, and I now know he hurt you, but not why, and I respect your decision not to tell me yet. Can’t you two just leave it at that? I don’t want to see either of you get hurt, and I have a bad feeling that I’m going to.” She sounded vulnerable as she looked down at her feet before back at him. He clearly understood her concern and moved a little closer to her. She flinched as he gently put his index finger under her chin and tilted her head to look at him, her eyes finally meeting his. “Hey, don’t worry yourself. It’s just a little fun is all. An’ ain’t no body gonna get hurt.” “But I know it isn’t just fun.” She replied, not able to stop the upset appearing in her eyes. “Trust me. Please?” He kissed her on her cheek, moving his finger from under her chin before he remounted Bullitt and moved towards the box. Well, I’ll be damned. He’d left her stunned to say the least. That man. Louise watched both the men position themselves, Matt having moved into the arena on Chute but keeping away from the chutes and box, Vaughn sorting out his lariat and pigging string, positioning it between his teeth. The air was thick with tension as he nodded his head to Terry who released the steer into the arena, Vaughn kicking Bullitt into a full speed gallop with the lariat swinging and ready to rope.

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She watched, eyes wide as he roped the steer and jumped off Bullitt ready to tie three of its legs together. Louise couldn’t believe his agility, her heart doing backflips as she realised just how skilled his man really was. She knew right there and then that she was falling for him, hook, line and sinker. Oh hell. She said I would. And I have. Dammit. She didn’t move her eyes from him. He was captivating to say the least, even if she was meant to be a little peeved with him. There sure is something about him. She smiled to herself. As he mounted his horse and slackened the rope, holding it there for six seconds, Terry called his time. “Thirteen point nine.” They released the steer and directed it back to the chutes, it running into the free holding pen as the calf had done before. Vaughn turned Bullitt around and trotted past Matt, looking him square in the eyes. It was obvious that this battle wasn’t going to be over any time soon. “Haven’t lost it I see.” Matt said as he and Chute trotted off to the box ready for his turn, Vaughn positioning himself away from the chutes as Matt had. Matt got ready and before Louise knew it he had kicked Chute into a gallop, chasing after the steer as it was released and roping it almost a second faster than Vaughn. He dismounted and raced over to it, tying three legs before jumping back on his horse and waiting the six seconds. “Thirteen flat.” Terry called out. “God, these guys are good.” Louise said as she leant on the metal fence next to Terry, who was back and forth getting the steers sorted out in the chutes.

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“Tell me about it. Y’all excited or what?” He said as the speakers went silent before the player changed to another CD, ‘Don’t Say A Word’ pumping out into the atmosphere. “Wow, perfect disc.” “It’s pretty intense isn’t it?” Louise replied before adding, “Perfect disc?” “It’s mine. Made it for when everyone’s in a pretty competitive mood. Hence perfect.” He fiddled around for a second and pulled a case out that was a little dirt to say the least. He handed it to her with a smile. “Track listin’.” “Thanks.” Louise smiled as she looked over the list of twenty three songs, Terry disappearing for a second as she read through them. She gave a nod of approval to Terry as he appeared again. “Pretty decent disc.” Her attention was drawn back to the action in the arena. Vaughn was back in the box and ready to set off again, Matt watching from the other side. Everyone was silent, the music saying more than any of them could, and Louise and Terry watched as the men battled it out. Each time the hands went up in the air Terry shouted the times to each of the men, but other than the music, he was the only one that spoke. Matt was soon back in the box for his fifth run, Chute galloping forward after the steer as Matt roped it around the horns. He jumped off Chute ready to throw it to the ground, when suddenly the steer shook its head violently. It’s left horn hit him directly in the ribcage, throwing him to the dirt. “Shoot.” Terry scaled the fence and raced over to see if his friend was okay. Matt slowly pushed himself off the ground holding his side wincing. Louise didn’t quite know what to do, deciding that the only and best thing would be to watch. Vaughn was trying to keep Bullitt still across the other side of the arena, and if

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Louise hadn’t known any better, she’d say that he looked a little upset, maybe even anxious. “I’m fine Terry. Sort the steer.” Matt breathed as he walked over to Chute and threw himself back into the saddle with a grunt, clearly in pain. Terry released the steer before racing back to open the chute so that Matt could direct it back down into one of the holding pens. Once the steer was out of the way, Matt exited the arena through the box and made his way over to the metal fence. Louise raced over to him as she watched him place his hand on one of the bars, leaning forward so he could catch his breath. “You okay?” Louise said gently as she slowed down, coming to a stop by his side. “Just winded. I’ll live.” Matt said in a whisper. “Let me take a look.” She touched his side and felt him recoil slightly. “Shirt.” “You just wanna see me half naked.” He tried to laugh, but winced as he did. “I’m sure I could see you half naked whenever I wanted mister , now let me take a look at your side.” He smiled as she rolled up his shirt and vest top he was wearing underneath. He was still leaning on the fence as she did, teeth clenched. “Maybe I’ll take you up on that offer.” He winced again. “Ain’t been whacked like that for a long time.” “Wow. That’s a really nice one.” She said as she saw the purple bruise already starting to show. “Everything looks okay I think. Hold still.” She pressed her fingers lightly against his ribs to feel if there was anything unusual. “Stand straight a second.” He obeyed and raised his elbow into the air before she pressed down again. “Nope, I think you’re fine, but you’re going to have a huge bruise so expect it to be sore for a good few days and it will probably hurt like hell.”

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“How d’ya know that?” He asked as she rolled his vest and shirt back down for him. He lowered his arm with another wince. “First Aid course in high school. Came out with an A.” She shrugged. “Full of hidden talents.” He said as he slowly made his way over to the metal box that the CD player was sitting in, Louise following close behind and she watched as he slowly sat down. “Thanks.” “I’m actually very surprised you didn’t break anything.” She said as she looked down at him. “And it’s no problem.” She looked over to her right, Vaughn obviously having proven his point. He was making his way back to the stables without saying another word to anyone. That’s Vaughn for you. Terry had turned off the music and had jumped onto Redeye, moving the steers from the holding pens. The fun was obviously more than over for the day. “Hey, don’t mind me if you don’t wanna stick around.” Matt looked up at her, hands turned in on his thighs. “No, it’s okay. He’s been an asshole today, so he can come to me for a change. He’s got my cell, so there’s no excuse for him not ringing.” She didn’t look back down at Matt, but instead followed Vaughn with her eyes. Her eyes must have given away just how wounded she was by his behaviour, as Matt’s tone had turned sweeter and understanding. “He ain’t the easiest to get along with sugar, trust me.” He said as he reached for her forearm and lightly took hold of it. She turned back to look at Matt again, Vaughn no longer a distraction. “Don’t I just know it.” She took one last look at the dark man disappearing into the stables before sitting down next to Matt.

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“Wish you’d stayed in bed now?” Matt didn’t smile as he said it, but instead kept his voice sincere. She smiled as she replied. “And miss seeing you ride? Not a chance.”

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Poison Whiskey

It was the beginning of the week off Louise and Shelby both had, Bryan having closed the store for a week-long vacation. Customers weren’t ever too pleased that they worked it like this, but it only happened once a year, and saved any arguing over the girls never having vacation time together. They really were more of a family than work colleagues. Louise had got up at a little before 8:30am, glad to finally be able to have a lay in, but her mind automatically reverted back to Vaughn and the fact that he hadn’t called her at all. It had made her upset and she knew that if she didn’t get out of bed, it would ruin the rest of the day. She gave a good stretch as she rolled over to see an orange ball of fluff flicking her tail lightly next to her. It brushed past her nose and made her smile as she moved her hand to give Dakota a gentle stroke, accidentally waking her up. “Hey pussy-kin.” She said as Dakota registered that it was only Louise. She stretched and rolled slightly on her back wanting a fuss, Louise giving in and giving her belly a quick rub. “I think it’s time for me to get up.” She mentioned as she slowly pushed herself up to lean against her headboard, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes. “And I tell you what Da-” She stopped as she heard her cell phone start to ring faintly. Louise jumped out of bed knowing that she had left her phone in her jeans pocket last night, and fiddled around trying to find the pocket that it was in. She pulled it out and ran back over to the bed before answering, making sure her legs were covered as she crossed them. “Hello?” She said as she tucked a piece of hair behind her ear.

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“Erm, hey. It’s me.” Came the quiet Southern twang she’d been longing to hear for the past two days. She smiled, but only for a second. “Hi. What took you so long?” She asked straight out of the gate. She didn’t see the point in beating around the bush, especially not this early in the morning anyway. “Bit of a coward when it comes to sayin’ sorry.” Vaughn replied and Louise knew from his tone that he must have been mulling over what to say since the incident on Sunday. “I wouldn’t have guessed.” Louise said, then, closing her eyes, wished she hadn’t. The last thing she wanted was for him to hang up on her. There was silence on the line before he answered. “I’m sorry. Really.” “Thank you.” She shut her eyes again, but this time she smiled. “Seems that’s all I’m sayin’ to you at the minute, huh?” She heard him moving about and realised that he’d probably have his head down and be looking at his boots. That’s Vaughn for ya. “Oh, I’m sure you’ve said more to me than sorry. As a matter of fact I know you have.” She said it with a smile in her voice, just glad that he had plucked up the courage to say it. “I’m sorry too.” “For what?” Came the reply. “Pushing you.” “Ain’t no need to apologise to me, I’m easily wound up at the minute, an’ none o’ that’s your fault.” She sighed. “I just want you to know you can talk to me rather than running away.” He shuffled again before replying. “I just don’t wanna force you away. An’ it sounds simpler than it really is.”

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“Well, I’m here when you’re ready, and I’m not easily pushed away, trust me . All I ask of anybody is that they’re honest. It would take a huge amount of horsepower to dislodge me from where I am at this minute in time.” She smiled again as she heard him laugh on the other end. She knew that the ice had been broken and the incident on Sunday was finally water under the bridge. “Why you so good to me?” He asked, it obvious to Louise he was smiling. “Because I care.” Came her reply. She had quickly thought about whether or not to say it, but decided just as quickly that she should. “Now there’s three little words I ain’t heard in a long time.” “Well, I mean it. I do.” “Thanks.” His tone had seemed to turn shy. “What for?” “For carin’.” He had the kindest tone to his voice, and Louise couldn’t help but feel almost like a child again. “I wouldn’t have answered my phone if I didn’t care, would I?” It was a rhetorical question. There was a slight pause on the end of the line. “You still in bed?” He asked, his tone changing slightly again as she heard a small movement on the other end. “Don’t tell me you’re going to ask me what I’m wearing, because then I‘ll hang up on you.” She said it with a laugh before adding, “And what are you doing exactly?” “So you are then? An’ no, I wasn’t gonna ask you what you’re wearin’. Why you wanna know what I’m doin’ anyhow?” “Because I can hear you shuffling about.” She shifted slightly herself, her left foot slightly numb from her legs being folded.

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“Well, I’m in my kitchen, waitin’ on the coffee machine. How long you been awake for, if ya don’t mind me askin’?” “Erm, about fifteen minutes. I did get out of bed to grab my phone, but I got cold, so jumped back in.” He chuckled as he replied. “Really? I was up a little before seven. Light comes through the window an’ I’m wide awake. It’s a cowboy thing.” “A cowboy thing huh? I bet you have your muddy boots by the bed, spurs on your dresser and your hat over the post on your headboard too.” She giggled. “What would ya think if I did?” He asked playfully. “Honestly?” She laughed. “That you’re a typical cowboy” “Really?” “Really, really.” “Well, maybe I should start to take my boots upstairs then.” He paused for a second. “They stay in the kitchen.” He sounded at ease, and Louise knew that she could talk like this with him for hours. “I like talking with you.” “Really? Why for?” She heard him move again. “Now I can’t tell you that, but, maybe, if we are still on for tonight, you might find out.” Her hair fell free from behind her ear. Well played Louise. Well played. “Promises, promises.” “That wasn’t a promise, Vaughn.” She was desperately trying to contain a squeal, but it snuck out in her tone ever so slightly.

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“Well, I never broke off tonight, Louise.” Her heart skipped when he said ‘Louise’, his Southern accent sounding that much more sensual over the phone. She re-tucked the piece of hair behind her ear that had fallen free again. “Well, good. I was starting to think you didn’t want to see me.” “Please tell me why I wouldn’t wanna see you?” “Well, I don’t know. Why do you?” Deep down she was actually rather curious. “Well now, I can’t tell ya that.” “Can’t or won’t?” “I’m goin’ for won’t.” “I never thought I’d say this but you are such a tease.” She chuckled. He laughed. “Me? Now that definitely is a first.” “I doubt that somehow.” She laughed down the phone again and heard him do the same. “I’d offer you a coffee, but you ain’t here, so I’m not goin’ to.” He said sarcastically as Louise heard him pour a cup, the coffee machine obviously finished brewing. “I guess I’m going to have to get up and make a cup for myself seeing as you are making me crave one.” “If I’d been there, your first coffee would o’ been two hours ago.” “Thanks for that.” She laughed. “I’ll see you tonight, ‘round eight?” “You cutting me off?” “Nope, I’m just savin’ you for later.” “You are so bad.” “Nah” And with that he hung up, leaving Louise sitting on her bed, stunned.

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Louise had been reeling from the phone conversation that she had shared with Vaughn earlier that day, still not being able to get over how scandalous he’d been. She had never seen or heard him like that, but she definitely liked it, and if the phone call was anything to go by, tonight was going to be very interesting. She was sitting in the lounge watching ‘Vanishing Point’, a glass of water on the coffee table in front of her and Dakota asleep at the other end of the couch in a ball, her tail wrapped tightly around her face. She smiled to herself as the Challenger on the screen raced down the highway trying to lose the cops that were on his tail. She listened intently to the screech of tires coming through the surround sound speakers that stood hidden around the couch, enjoying every second of it. “Oh my Lord! Damn phone. Stop ringing! ” She shouted out as her phone rang again, vibrating across the coffee table. She managed to catch it before it fell to the floor. “Shelby?” She said as she saw the caller ID flash up on screen. “Hey sweetness.” “Louise! Oh thank the Lord.” Her friend sounded panicked. Something was wrong. “What’s happened Shel?” Louise felt her stomach drop. She knew from the tone of her friends’ voice that something bad had definitely happened. “I’m so scared Lou.” Came the shaky voice on the other end. “Shelby, calm down. What’s happened?” “Can you come get me?”

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“I’m there in five.” Louise said, hanging up the phone and racing to fetch the keys for her truck from the kitchen side. She swung back around the island and raced out of the door, locking it behind her before speeding off down the road towards Shelby’s house. As soon as Louise had heard Shelby’s voice she knew that something had happened involving her ex. She was normally a very good judge of character, but with Hank Marsell she was totally and utterly stupid, forever thinking that one day, he may just apologise for the pain he had put her through. Not just psychologically either. Louise knew that her broken bones had healed over the years, but her heart was still shattered and needed to be mended. She also knew that Shelby was still very much in love with him. As she sped down Reynolds Street towards Harper Drive, Louise’s heart started to beat faster, her hands sweating as she gripped hold of the wheel. What if he’s still there? She thought as she veered around a kid on a bicycle, just missing a parked car on the opposite side of the road. He can’t be. Shelby wouldn’t have called if he was. She reassured herself as she drew closer, the houses on either side a blur as she careered down Harper Drive. She stamped on the brakes as she reached Shelby’s house, the tires squealing and the rear of her pickup spinning out slightly as it came to a stop. Louise jumped out of the truck and raced through the open front door, not noticing that the lock had been broken. “Louise?” Came a frightened shout from the top of the stairs. “Yes baby, I’m here.” She shouted as she swung herself around the banister and rushed up to her friend who was sitting on the floor. Her arms were tightly

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wrapped around her knees, hair matted over her face. “Oh my God.” She said as Shelby lifted her head to see her friend, relief in her eyes as blood trickled down her head, tears staining her cheeks. “Hank.” She said as Louise kneeled in front of her, moving her head so that she could assess the damage. “How did he get in? Oh honey.” Louise was more than sympathetic as she wiped the sticky hair out of Shelby’s face before embracing her in a hug . Bastard. Her heart sank. “I didn’t wanna let him in so he bust down the door.” She burst into tears as her friend held her tight, Louise not caring that the light blue t-shirt she was wearing was being covered in blood, sweat and mascara. “Shhh. It’s okay. It’s okay. I’m here.” Louise comforted as she gently rocked her bruised friend back and forth. She sat down slowly and pulled Shelby almost into her lap. Shelby wrapped her arms around Louise’s waist, clutching at her t-shirt. They both sat there, neither letting go. “Why’s it always me Lou?” Shelby finally said with a sniff as she looked up at her friend. She had huge mascara lines running from under her eyes, the blood from her cut on her head now all over her cheek. There were thick lines of smeared blood that had run from the cuts on her lips to underneath her chin and were slowly drying into crispy red flakes. Louise saw that she had a rather nasty purple eye, and couldn’t help but start to fill up with tears herself. “It’s not always you sweetheart. Not at all.” She said it softly before adding, “But at least you have me. I nearly ran over a kid to get here.” She smiled slightly as Shelby spurted out a laugh.

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“Really? You did that for me?” She said, her smile radiating up to her sore and tired eyes. “Of course I did. You know I’ll kill to keep you safe.” She smiled back down to her friend, humour obviously being the best medicine. This time anyway. “That’s sweet. I’m so lucky to have ya Lou, I really am.” “Well, ditto. Want to stay with me for a few days?” Louise said, Shelby obviously wanting to say yes, but holding back a little. “We can have a party tomorrow, just you and me, me and you.” She said, lifting up her eyebrows. “Pizza?” “Yep. Anything else?” “Nope. Had enough o’ boys.” She said it in a babyish voice, Louise chuckling a little. “Let’s go and get you some bits packed then and we can get gone. Taking the ‘tang?” Louise asked before they both moved so that they could stand up. “Yeah, should do really.” Shelby stated as both of the girls started to make their way to the bedroom. “Oh Lord.” She said as she saw herself in the bedroom mirror. “Let’s worry about getting you back, and then I can clean you up.” Louise said as she moved back a few paces to put her arm around her shoulders. “Pop these on for now.” She picked up the sunglasses that were on Shelby’s dresser and placed them over her eyes, being careful not to bump or scrap her. “There we go.” “Thanks.” She had started to sound down again as she moved over to the closet and threw some clothes on the bed, Louise packing them into a case that she had bought out from underneath the bed frame.

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“A mini skirt?” Louise said as she paused at one of the items, a frown on her face. “Why the hell not?” Was the reply as Shelby finally finished and shut the closet doors with a sniff. Once packed, the two girls made their way downstairs, Louise dead bolting the front door from the inside. The two of them made their way through the back door, being able to lock it properly from the outside. Shelby jumped into her Mustang, the roof being up as it had rained the previous day. She kept an eye on Shelby in the rear view all the way there, just in case it all got a bit much and she wanted to pull over. When they arrived, Louise parked her pickup on the drive, a little further over to the door than usual so that Shelby could get her car next to it. Louise didn’t want her to leave it on the road, and once they had arrived inside, locking the front door behind them, Louise took Shelby into the bathroom to clean her up. Shelby was sitting on the side of the bath as Louise dabbed a damp cloth on her head. “I thought y’all had a hot date tonight?” “I can cancel.” She said as she dipped the cloth into the sink. “He’ll understand.” “Don’t cancel on account o’ me.” Shelby said, her brown eyes looking deep into Louise’s. “I don’t mind. And anyway, you come first. I’m sure his excitement won’t disappear.” She smiled at her friend before dabbing her head again. “Ouch.” “Sorry. He really did a number on you, huh?”

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“Not as bad as that time I was laid up in the hospital sweetness , remember that?” She mentioned as Louise rubbed her cheek lightly, washing away the dried blood from earlier. “Yeah, but that wasn’t your whole face. It takes a coward to hit a woman, a complete asshole to break her and an utter bastard to spoil her looks.” Louise said it matter-of-factly, Shelby giggling a little. “I love you Louise Best.” Shelby said with a sigh. “Well, I love you too Shelby Onnaway.” Louise smiled before taking her friends chin in her free hand. “But you can be a damn fool sometimes.” “An’ so can you. I want y’all to go on that date.” She told her, Louise releasing her chin as she dipped the cloth in the sink again, ringing it out and wiping down her friends face. “You just want the tub upstairs and the TV all to yourself, don’t you missus?” “Yes. An’ I know he rang you today. Can see it in your face every time I mention the word ‘date’.” “Well, yeah he did. And he apologised virtually straight away for Sunday.” Louise smiled as she remembered the conversation from earlier. “And?” Shelby pried, Louise having unplugged the sink and leaning on it lightly before turning around to answer. “There is no and.” She tried to hide it, but Shelby caught the flash that ran across her eyes. “I may be a dang fool, but I ain’t no fool.” “Okay, okay. Let’s just say that tonight might be a nice night for a first kiss.” She blushed slightly as Shelby gasped in excitement. “I knew it. Now you’re goin’, no excuses baby girl.”

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“Shel-by.” “Lou-ise.” “Coff-ee?” “I love you.” And with that they both made their way out of the bathroom to the kitchen, Louise flicking on the coffee machine and reaching for two mugs. “Wanna smoke with me when it’s done? I’m totally desperate.” She was leaning on the counter next to her friend. “Actually, yeah.” “Calm the nerves a bit, huh? What time he comin’ to get you?” “Around eightish.” She said looking over to Shelby. “Only two hours. Know what you’re gonna wear yet? Can’t wear that now can you?” Shelby said as she nodded to the blue t-shirt Louise was still wearing. “T-shirt, jeans, boots. Oh my God.” Louise flinched slightly before digging into her front pocket. “Text?” Shelby watched Louise as she looked at her phone. “All it says is ‘Picnic’.” She said with a big grin she couldn’t hide. “Sexy. Now, you focus on that, ‘cause I’m gonna be just fine. I promise. If I need you, I’ll call.” “Are you sure? I mean, really?” Louise was smiling, but just wanted to make sure her friend would be okay. She never liked to leave her when something like this had happened, but she seemed more than fine now that she was cleaned up. “As long as you tell me the saucy details, yeah.” “Okay, fine.” Louise poured two cups of coffee, the machine having finished, and handed one to Shelby. “There you go.”

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“Thanks. Now, where are those cigarettes?” Shelby started to look for Louise’s pack of cigarettes, finding them in one of the draws beneath some old pictures. She pulled them out and made her way to the back door. “Comin’?” “Yep. They are mine.” She laughed as she joined her friend outside, both of them sitting on the concrete steps that went down into the garden. Shelby pulled out two Marlboro Menthols and lit them before passing one to her friend. “Oh my Lord, that is so worth waitin’ for.” Shelby exhaled and Louise leant back on her elbows to look up at the sky. Dusk was falling and the sky was yellow in the distance, fading out to orange, pink and then purple as it got closer. “The cig or the sunset?” Louise didn’t smile, but instead took in the beauty of the days end, completely mesmerised. “I was thinkin’ cig, but now I see that, I’m not so sure.” “You know Shelby.” Louise started, her friend looking over at her with a slight frown. “What?” “I admire you.” Louise looked over, catching Shelby’s almost confused gaze. “Why you wanna do that for?” She replied. “You’re a strong woman. Not many people can go through what you did today and come out smiling on the other end.” Louise’s tone had turned serious. “Well, I see it as copin’, you know. Ain’t much more y’all can do. There are two ways you can take this crap. One, is to sit there an’ cry forever an’ never really get over anythin’, turnin’ yourself into some recluse that’s gonna end up down at South Central, or two, y’all can pick yourself up an’ help it make ya a stronger person. I prefer the latter.” She puffed on the Marlboro, and Louise knew she was right.

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“I know you do. I just feel like we can’t get away from it. Maybe we should sell the houses and the two cars, pack up the truck and get gone. Just me and you. Somewhere where no one is going to know us, you know? Start over.” Louise was still looking up at the sky, watching it slowly changing, pinks becoming reds, purple becoming deep blue. “I tell you what.” Shelby said, turning herself to face Louise, her sensing the movement and looking back. “If anythin’ happens to either you or me in the next few months that’s as bad as this,” She pointed to her purple eye that was slowly turning black, “we’ll do it. Just us two. Hell, we’ll head on over to Texas an’ bag us both a man that knows how to treat a woman.” Louise laughed as she said, “Fast cars, slow kisses?” “An’ John Wayne movies baby girl.” Shelby giggled and Louise placed her head on her friends shoulder. “Sounds good to me. It’s a deal. Shall we say five months?” “Yeah, sounds good. Oh hell, what ya gonna do ‘bout Vaughn?” Louise shrugged. “Like I said when I broke it off with Chris, you are the most important person in my life. Without you I’d probably be in a wheelchair or something. Maybe even a box six feet under.” “Louise.” Shelby took Louise’s free hand in hers. “I don’t wanna come between you an’ a man, ‘specially if he’s a good as he sounds.” “We are in this together.” Louise said back to her friend. “If, and I mean if, in five months we are, you know, I’m sure he’d let you and me have our space, get settled, and then move from here too. If he won’t, he’s definitely not as good as he sounds.”

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“Well, let’s hope he is, huh?” Shelby finished off her cigarette and stubbed out the butt in an old flower pot plate that was sitting by the bottom step. Louise took another couple of puffs until she could do the same. “Hey, it’s ‘bout dark.” Shelby added as they sat watching the sky, the stars almost out as it turned from deep blue to black. “Oh my God.” Louise said as she checked her watch, it reading seven thirty. “And he’s usually early for everything too.” “C’mon little lady, let’s go get you spiffed up.” Shelby said as she stood up, waiting for Louise before they entered the house. Shelby pushed on her back to get her moving, and when they were clear, shut and locked the door behind them.

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Wrapped Up In You

“You sure she don’t mind? I mean, ya did say you were lookin’ out for her. That eye looked pretty sore too.” Vaughn said as he placed his hand on the chrome handle to his truck, it obvious he wasn’t sure that Louise should leave her friend. “She said she’ll be fine. She’s got a few DVD’s to keep her entertained, plus my Jacuzzi tub upstairs. No one would find her if she were in there even if they did break in.” She said it as she looked back towards the house, the bedroom light flicker on upstairs. “And Dakota is a pretty good guard cat when she wants to be.” “Okay, but only if you’re sure.” He said in reply, clicking open the passenger door to let her climb in. His heart jumped as he just managed to catch a scent of caramel, her hair being blown across her neck slightly in the wind and lifting the smell of her shampoo into the air. He clicked the door shut with a light sigh before moving around to the driver’s side. He took a deep breath before climbing in and giving her a quick smile, the shadow of his Stetson masking his eyes slightly. “A picnic then?” She smiled. “Yeah. Thought it would be nice to have a late night picnic down at Shiloh Lake. Not got much, just some pick bits. Hope that’s okay?” He said it without looking at her, slightly embarrassed about fixing something to eat for her. It had been a long time since he’d fixed a meal for anyone, and to make it even worse, he didn’t really know what she liked. “Sounds great. Thanks.” She replied, looking over and giving him a smile. He knew that the light hearted conversation on the phone earlier wasn’t going to be so easy face to face. “So where is this place then?”

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“Just down the road actually. You mean, you lived in Elba three years now an’ you ain’t ever been to Shiloh Lake?” He looked quickly over at her with a frown, but not meaning to question the reason why she hadn’t. “To be honest I never really managed to get out much. It’s a bit of a difficult story to retell. Sorry.” She recoiled back into her seat, looking down at her boots. “Sorry. I didn’t mean-” “That’s okay. I’ll tell you when I’m ready.” She looked over at him, catching his gaze, neither of them looking away. “I promise.” “Okay. Don’t wanna sound rude, but don’t go breakin’ that.” He tried to be gentle, wondering whether he should have said it at all. After all he didn’t want to push her away too soon. “Don’t worry, I won’t.” She replied matter-of-factly. She gave him a reassuring smile, him giving her one of gratitude back. “So, she definitely okay?” He changed the subject away from things that were too personal. Lord knew had has a few skeletons in his closet himself. “If I know Shelby she’s in the tub with the CD player on, beer on the side and a hell of a lot of bubbles.” She chuckled as she said it, obviously thinking about her friend having fun and being able to relax. “I’ll kill her if she drops that beer in the bath.” She said it more to herself as she turned back to look out of the windscreen, Vaughn chuckling a little at the remark. He slowed the pickup truck as he turned left onto what seemed like another housing estate, the street lamps lighting up the cab every couple of seconds. They bathed Louise in an orange glow, shadows dancing across her face, her blue eyes dazzling. He was definitely hooked, more so, he thought, than he had ever been all those years with Cindy.

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After another two turns, Vaughn slowed the truck to a crawl as the road turned to dirt. He crawled along the make-shift road before bumping onto a patch of grass that slowly turned into a wooded area. “Where-” She started as she turned to face him, a puzzled look on her face. “Trust me.” He turned slightly so that she could see the softness of his smile in his eyes. The ground slowly turned into what sounded like gravel, Vaughn bringing the pickup truck gently to a halt. Louise was still looking puzzled as he turned off the ignition, leaving the side lights on. “C’mon.” Vaughn smiled as he slipped out of the cab, Louise curiously following suit. As she shut the door and moved around to the front of the pickup, he arrived with a picnic basket in one hand and two blankets in the other. “Where’s this lake then?” Louise asked as he carried on walking. “It’s right here.” After fifteen feet, they entered a clearing to find a beautiful, almost calm lake, the odd gust of wind creating ripples on the surface. It was totally deserted and surrounded by woodland. “Oh my gosh.” Louise walked a little further towards the lake to get a better view, the deep blue waters reflecting the moonlight and making it look like glass. “It’s so beautiful.” She didn’t turn around, and he knew that she was in complete awe. “Wanna sit? I got two blankets so you don’t get cold. There’s another one in the truck if needs be.” He said with a genuine sweetness in his voice. He felt her watching him lay out the blankets as she walked back towards him. He was laying one on top of another so that the chill of the ground didn’t get to them. After all, I don’t wanna be chilled, an’ neither will she.

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“Thanks.” She said as she sat on the right, crossing her legs. Vaughn placed the basket down behind him as he sat down. “I have a flask o’ coffee if ya want?” “Yes please. I’m dying for one to be perfectly honest.” She said in reply, as he fetched out the warm flask and poured it into two plastic mugs. “It’s been years since I’ve had a picnic.” She mentioned as she took the mug off him and took a long sip. “Even longer since I’ve had one in the evening.” “Same here.” He looked over at her, his skin tingling. He couldn’t believe that he was finally alone with her. There mustn’t have been anyone around for at least a mile, and even then they were probably watching rubbish on television or going off to sleep. “I’ve missed this so much. The silence. You don’t realise how much you actually pass by when you’re working or pre-occupied all the time.” She gazed out at the lake, leaning back onto her elbows. She tilted her head back, as if to embracing the warm September wind as it blew her hair lightly. He was definitely hooked. “You look very at home.” Vaughn mentioned as he watched her totally relax, resisting the urge to move closer and run his fingers through her hair. “I think I am.” She moved her head back up so that she could take another sip of coffee. “So, Vaughn, do you bring girls here often?” He knew she was testing him as he held her gaze again, trying so hard to resist his urges. “Nope, haven’t been here for a long time myself. Last time was two years ago. I find it such a great place to think. You wouldn’t have thought I’d need it, but it’s nice to get away from things, ya know?” He looked out to the lake as he listened to the leaves rustle in the gentle breeze, remembering why he had fallen in love with this place as soon as he had found it.

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“Tell me about it, I mean, neighbours are such a nightmare, and being in the same place too long can drive you a bit nuts.” She took another sip, sitting up this time and crossing her legs again. She put her mug down on the ground next to her, her hair falling in her face slightly. She tucked it behind her ears and shyly smiled as she noticed him watching her again, completely mesmerized. “What’s up?” The air between them was starting to feel a little more charged than usual. “Nothin’.” Vaughn said, still gazing at her. “There’s jus’ somethin’ ‘bout you, is all.” He took a drink of his coffee, almost finishing it before placing the mug behind him next to the basket. “You know.” He started to say, rolling onto his right side, leaning his head on his hand, his elbow on the ground. He looked up at her, her eyes glistening with curiosity as she shifted her body slightly so that she could see him. His eyes were almost in shadow again. “I really haven’t ever bought anyone here before now.” “Does that mean I’m your first?” She said adding a playful tone to her voice. “Well, first for bein’ here with me, yeah.” He didn’t move, but instead kept observing her, almost as if by looking away this situation he found himself in wouldn’t exist. She smiled. “Cheeky. Hey, you said you don’t really need to come out here but still do. How come you think you don’t?” She asked gently, but his facial expression changed as she hit a nerve, and he moved his eyes from hers. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean-” “Don’t worry ‘bout it.” He was quiet as he moved to stand up, stepping over to a tree that was a few feet away. He leaned against it, his foot on the trunk, knee bent in true cowboy fashion as he looked out at the lake. “Erm, I’m sorry if you don’t, but d’ya mind?” He asked as he pulled a pack of cigarettes out from, it seemed, thin air.

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“Actually, I’ll join you.” She stood and walked over to where he was standing. He flinched slightly as she stopped a little too close to him, his pulse quickening ever so slightly. “Didn’t know you smoked?” He offered her the pack of Marlboro cigarettes, holding it as she slowly took one out, his heart jumping unexpectedly. Wow. She even makes that look good. He took the pack back. “Now and again. Prefer Menthol, but these are just as good.” She replied as she held it between her index and middle finger. “Didn’t know you smoked yourself.” “I don’t. I quit.” He said as he pulled one out for himself, throwing the pack at the basket and it falling to the floor. “Yeah, me too.” She replied. He lit her cigarette with a silver Zippo lighter he’d taken from his front pocket , looking deep into her eyes as he did. His heart started to race as they stood there in silence, the only sound being the light rustle of leafs above them. After lighting his own cigarette, covering the flame from a sudden gust of wind, he threw the lighter over to where the discarded pack was, it landing right on top. “I ain’t ever spent time like this with anyone. Not in a very long time anyhow.” He took a deep breath. “Um, to answer your question, I actually live with a lot o’ land ‘round me. People used to think it strange that I couldn’t escape life by stayin’ at home.” He stood against the tree, still facing the lake and not looking at Louise as he spoke. “Reason I enjoyed it here was ‘cause no one knew where I was.” “I’ve never had a place like that. Well, this.” “Really? Well, it was like havin’ my own private world. ‘Specially with what went on an’ everythin’.” He winced and dropped his gaze to the floor. “Shoot.” “Hey, you don’t have to say if-”

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“I’m sorry, I just. It’s one o’ those things. Still gets to me.” He paused before looking back up at her. “I didn’t mean to bring it up.” He felt her gently move towards him, putting her hand on his upper arm. “I understand you know. I’ve had my fair share.” She looked straight into his eyes as she said it, hers warm yet thoughtful. He held her gaze as the breeze died down, even if it was only a temporary stillness. He laughed before looking back out to the lake, the reflection of the moon eerie yet temptingly romantic. “You know, I wanted this to be fun.” She took a puff on her cigarette before walking a little closer to the edge of the lake. “Oh, trust me, it is.” She didn’t turn around. He gave a chuckle as he took one last puff before flicking the butt away, still leaning against the tree. He folded his arms as he watched her again, the way she moved being so playful yet casual. She was even more stunning in the moonlight. Just the way it captured her hair and made it shine with every light gust was enough to make him go crazy, and the fact that she was wearing a t-shirt and dark, tight jeans that set off her figure amazingly didn’t help. She had made it clear to him that she was interested, just the way she looked at him was more than enough, but he couldn’t be sure. After all, she had said a few days ago that she’d not long come out of a bad relationship. Maybe she was just enjoying being a little flirty.

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When he’d taken the last draw on his cigarette, t he smoke he’d exhaled had made his cowboy silhouette look even more tempting than usual. So tempting in fact that she’d had to move away. Not because she’d wanted to, but because if she hadn’t, she’d be the one against that tree. Just the way his foot was leant up against it and how his Stetson fell forward still. It all made Louise feel wild and she hadn’t felt like this in years. The tingling she felt rising up her back and tickling her neck made her want him so much more than she had originally thought she did. After looking out across the lake for another minute, neither of them speaking, Louise disposed of her cigarette end and gently turned around. As she finally returned to face Vaughn she noticed that he hadn’t moved or taken his eyes off her. Her heart raced, taking her breath away as he smiled lightly. She smiled back, his eyes hidden from view again underneath his Stetson. She made her way back to the picnic, the only sounds being the gentle swish of the lake and the leafs on the trees, and she blushed slightly as she felt him watch her as she sat down again. She folded her legs underneath her as she sat, it helping her cross her legs a little more gracefully. She leant back slightly to fetch her cell phone out of her pocket, it uncomfortable being where it was, and threw it on the ground next to the cigarette packet. “You coming?” She said as she patted the empty pace next to her. “Yeah.” He took one last look at the lake before using his foot to push him off the tree so that he could make his way to sit with Louise. “Wanna take a peek at what I packed?” He said as he sat down, knees bent with his feet flat on the ground. “If you insist.” She leant her face on her hand as she tipped forward slightly, turning her head to look at him.

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“It’s not too impressive, so don’t expect much.” Vaughn leant back, pulling the basket over with ease and placing it in the middle of them by their feet. “Be my guest.” Louise flipped the lid of the basket open to find he had packed an array of biscuits, potato chips, a pack of cookies, two doughnuts and a few sandwiches. There was also a bottle of water and a couple of beers. “I didn’t know if you would wanna drink, but I bought ‘em just in case. An’ the sandwiches are chicken in case you were wonderin’. Erm, those doughnuts should still be okay, were fresh this mornin’.” He looked towards the basket, but didn’t move to take anything out. “Looks great. You do make a good picnic. Better than me anyhow.” She smiled over to him before taking a cookie out. “You want one?” She asked as she offered him the pack. “Sure.” He stated as he took one, taking a bite. “An’ I bet I don’t make a better one than you.” “Trust me, I wouldn’t know where to start.” She put the lid back on to the basket, shifting it out of the way. “And you make good cookies too.” Vaughn laughed. “You know I didn’t make those. Mine would taste better.” “You bake?” She was giggling too, uncrossing her legs and straightening them out again. She leant back on her elbows, the pack of cookies by her side and out of Vaughn’s reach. “No.” He laughed again, tilting his head back slightly and looking up at the night sky. “No I don’t. Wish I could though ‘cause I fancy some brownies right ‘bout now. Guess these’ll have to do.” He finished off the rest of his cookie, watching as the moonlight flickered through the leafs.

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“I can bake brownies, and they are actually pretty good. Shelby tends to eat them all though if she finds them.” She smiled over at him again, not believing that this man actually enjoyed her company enough to bring her to a place like this. It was about the only time she had seen him completely relaxed and she had to admit that she liked it. Possibly more than when he was being mysterious, leaving her guessing time and time again. She felt that what would come next, if there was a next, would be just as exciting. “Now you’re just teasin’ me.” He said moving his gaze back to her, as her hair fall behind her again. She was leaning back on her palms, her elbows obviously getting a little sore and in need of a stretch. “Trust me, I’m not.” She had a teasing smile on her lips. “But, seeing as I didn’t make any, you’re just going to have to eat these crappy cookies.” She picked up the pack in her right hand, giving it a shake. “I guess I am. You owe me a brownie little lady.” He said as he rolled onto his side and attempted to grab the pack, Louise moving it away to arm’s length . “Hey, Louise!” He exclaimed with a chuckle as he failed to seize them. “Do you really want one?” She shook the pack again, inviting him to try his luck for a second time, a smug look on her face. “You little-” He laughed as he rolled onto his knees, placing one between hers as he leant over her to fetch the pack. She fell flat onto her back in a laugh, rolling over slightly to try and keep it from him. She moved the pack above her head, Vaughn trying to steady himself as he reached again. They laughed as they took their gazes away from the cookie pack and caught each other’s eyes. Their faces so close they were almost touching and the brim of Vaughn’s Stetson reaching just over her head.

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He stopped reaching for the cookies, slowly moving his hand onto the blanket next to her. Her heart starting to thud in her chest again. She let the cookie pack drop to the ground as both of their laughs turned into faint smiles, Louise searching his eyes as another gust of wind blew lightly through the trees. He kept her gaze, almost as if looking for an answer of what to do next, both of their smiles fading as the atmosphere became electrified. Oh my God. Louise thought, her heart now racing faster than it ever had before. Oh my God. She didn’t know what he was going to do, and all of a sudden she felt both nervous and excited. Kiss me. She willed as she felt his light breath on her cheek, but not being able to muster up the courage to lean in and do it herself.

*

*

*

She’s so close. Vaughn thought as he watched the different flecks of color dance in her eyes, being pulled in even further than he already knew he was. Kiss her Vaughn. Ya know you want to. Rang out in his head. Lean in. He paused for another moment before he gradually leant into her, seeing her eyes close before his, a sure sign that it was what she had wanted him to do. His lips touched hers, his heart beating even harder than he thought possible as she allowed him to kiss her. He leant down on his right elbow to get closer, letting his fingers twist in her hair as he slowly opened his mouth and let his tongue find hers. Explosions burst in his head as they kissed deeper and more sensually.

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He felt her move her left hand slowly up his arm as she relaxed into the kiss, it eventually finding his Stetson and gently removing it. He shivered as she gently moved her hand up to the back of his neck and ran her fingers though his thick hair. He moved his legs so that he was almost lying on top of her, feeling her knee cup his thigh. He tensed as her fingers wrapped around the top of his arm, the firm grip being just enough to tip him over the edge. He couldn’t contain himself any longer and kissed her hungrily, wanting more than anything to get closer to her. As his tongue found hers again, he traced his free hand gently down to her waist, lifting her slightly and pulling her into him. He felt her break the kiss slightly as she gasped at the advance. He knew it would be obvious to her just how much he desired her. He rested his nose lightly against hers and let her catch her breath. He watched as she opened her eyes, the blue intense. He didn’t move, her stammered breaths heating his cheek, knowing that his must have been doing the same to hers. He saw a craving in her eyes then, and knew that she hadn’t wanted him stop, his senses tingling as she took charge and leant her face into his so that their lips touched again. She finally allowed him to move so that he was between her, her other knee bending to accommodate him as he shifted. He moved his hand from her back and placed his elbow on the blanket so that he could cup her face, something he had wanted to do since the day they had first met. His kisses were deep and passionate as he moved so that he was completely on top of her, their bodies seeming to fit perfectly. He felt Louise’s pulse quicken as his belt buckle pressed lightly into her lower stomach, the feel of it obviously more overwhelming than she had expected.

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He moved his mouth from hers, kissing her jaw line as he moved his hand down to her waist again, feeling her tense as he kissed her neck. She gasped, Vaughn responding by kissing her harder, knowing now that she had more than craved for him these past weeks, just as he had her. The caramel scent of her hair filled his airways, his hand moving back to cup her face as he retraced his kisses lightly along her jaw line before stopping an inch away from her lips. He moved his head back slightly and opened his eyes, just in time to see her slowly open hers, his pulse still racing. “Hey.” Was what he said through a panted breath, a dazed smile lighting his deep brown eyes. “Hi.” Louise bit her bottom lip, obviously still amazed by the man lying on top of her. “I’ve wanted to do that for so long.” He sighed as he took in her face. He moved his thumb lightly across her cheek as she closed her eyes. “Me too.” “You’re so beautiful.” He whispered as she opened her eyes again. “Thanks.” A blush filled her cheeks, it obvious she was trying to think of something to say. Vaughn knew that she was never speechless, but right now she could hardly say a word. Vaughn watched her eyes again, the sound of the light ripples on the lake making him smile slightly. He was glad that he had bought her here to the lake, it being peaceful and private, and he knew that even if they hadn’t shared their first kiss tonight, it would have still been well worth it. He gave her a light kiss before he moved so that he could sit back, his gaze still focused on hers and his heels lightly digging into the blanket as he made himself

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comfortable. He watched as Louise gently sat up and shuffled towards him with a smile, placing each leg over the top of his as she faced him. She smiled, playful flickers lighting her eyes as his filled with surprise, not quite believing that she wanted to stay so close to him. She picked up his hat with her left hand and placed it on his head, watching her own movements as she did, her blue eyes telling him she didn’t want this to be over just yet. “Thanks.” He said as a burning smile crept into his eyes. True, he had more than enjoyed the position they had been in five minutes ago, but there was something else about them being in each other’s personal space. Somehow it seemed a lot more intimate. “No problem, cowboy.” Louise replied as she dropped her hand to the ground, leaning back slightly. She didn’t take her eyes off him as he moved both of his hands up her legs, resting them on top of her knees when he finally found them. “You, little lady, are nothin’ but a tease.” “Really?” She had a seductive look in her eyes that was just too inviting for him to resist. “Absolutely terrible.” He moved his hands down the top of her thighs, feeling her lightly shiver all over. He carried on, moving them to her waist before pulling her into him in one swift motion, keeping his hands around her as he studied her reaction. “Umm. Now I’d say you were the tease, cowboy.” She flirted, his heart doing a backflip when she said the word ‘cowboy’. “Well, maybe I am.” He whispered in her ear before pulling back slightly. “Don’t make you any better now, does it?” He encouraged, his face only inches from

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hers. He was tempted to kiss her again, but wanted to keep her guessing all the same. “I don’t need to be any better.” She moved a little closer, as she spoke, her light breath on his cheek keeping his heart racing. “You bring out the worst in me, ya know that?” He said with a laugh as he watched the passion in her eyes. They seemed bluer than they ever had done before. He still couldn’t believe that she was right here in front of him, not to say in a pretty compromising position. “So you’re saying you aren’t enjoying spending time with me then?” She asked, her playful tone reappearing. “You know what I’m sayin’.” He said with a mischievous smile as he slowly leant in to kiss her again, their noses just brushing each other’s as they were stopped by a shrill ringing coming from behind them. Louise tilted her head back and breathed out heavily as she recognised the ring tone of her cell phone. “Oh God, not now.” She utter under her breath as it kept ringing. “I’ll wait here.” Vaughn kissed her neck playfully, making her giggle before she shuffled back, rolling onto her front and grabbing the phone. “Shelby, what’s up?” She said lying flat on her stomach as she answered. Vaughn, having bent his legs a little more, was now leaning forward, his elbows on his knees, arms crossed lightly as he watched her. He knew she was stunning, but hadn’t realised just how amazing she looked from every single At that exact moment, he knew that he was slowly falling in love with her.

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“Well, no not really.” She paused to hear her friends’ response before replying. “It’s not? Oh my God it is.” She paused again, rolling onto her back, phone still to her ear. “Well, can I say another thirty minutes?” Vaughn couldn’t help but smile as he watched her, trying to think of an idea to make her laugh while she was talking and maybe even be a little mischievous at the same time. The brainwave hitting him, he couldn’t help but chuckle as he rolled forward onto his knees and crawled up to her with a sneaky grin spread across his face. He took hold of her knees and moved her legs gently apart, crawling between them before grasping her waist again and pulling her to him. “Vaughn!” She whispered as she sat up slightly, covering the mouthpiece of her cell phone. “What?” Was his reply, making it obvious that he wanted her off the phone by the way he started to slowly move his hand up her side. “Now’s not a good time Shel.” She said, pausing to let her friend talk again as she tried to contain a giggle by biting her bottom lip. “God Shelby, no!” She said with a grin, a shocked expression on her lips. “But yes, there is a cowboy sitting on me.” She paused again. “Okay, yes he is, and you shouldn’t be asking things like that.” Vaughn laughed as he guessed what they were talking about, his move having the desired effect. It was amazing the way she made him feel. He finally felt truly comfortable to be himself with a woman. It was evident that Louise liked him just the way he was, and he knew that that was rare to find. Maybe, if he had told her about his past she wouldn’t be herself around him. He liked the fact that she didn’t try to impress . She was who she was,

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like it or leave it, which was probably why her friend on the other end of her cell phone thought so much of her. “Yes. And yes it was.” A slight blush rose to her cheeks as she covered her eyes with her forearm. “Can I go now?” She asked through a laugh. Shelby had obviously said something that was either very crude or very funny. “Okay, I’ll see you in half an hour. And clean up the bathroom please.” With that she clicked on the button to end the call, throwing it back to where she had picked it up from. “She’s a little too curious, ain’t she?” Vaughn asked Louise with a naughty smile as he placed his hands on each of her wrists. He pulled her hands up behind her head and leant into her again. “Does this mean we have to end the night here?” “I’m afraid so cowboy. Just gives you something to look forward to next time.” She gave him a wink and a smile that he just couldn’t resist. “One for the road?” He said rhetorically as he tilted his head and leaned in to kiss her, his heart racing again as their tongues met once more. He gasped as she lifted herself into him, the fact that he had her pinned to the spot by her wrists obviously adding to her excitement. He broke away, kissing her gently once more before rolling back on his heels with a sigh and standing up straight. She looked up at him with dazed yet sad eyes, obviously disappointed that they had to stop. He offered her his hand and pulled her effortlessly to her feet with a smile. He tucked his shirt back into his jeans where it had crept out slightly, and shifted his Stetson so that it sat right. Louise pulled her t-shirt back down to where it should be before pulling up her jeans slightly, a smile still on her lips.

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“I know this is going to sound strange, but I really fancy one of those chicken sandwiches right about now.” Louise said as she picked up her phone and put it in her pocket before opening the basket and digging around for a sandwich. “Yeah, it kinda did.” Vaughn laughed, picking up his cigarettes and lighter. He put them in his breast pocket, folding the blankets up and slinging them under his arm. He noticed the flask and, after dropping it into the basket, hunted around for the two plastic mugs before throwing them in too. “This is pretty good.” She said as she swallowed a bite and fell into step besides him on their way back to the truck. He smiled at her as he took a chance and put his arm lightly around her shoulders. “Really?” He tried to sound shocked, but a chuckle escaped. “Yeah, really.” She gave him a slight elbow as he moved his arm and threw the basket in the back before walking around to the driver’s side. “Maybe I wanted a little more than just one.” She pulled herself up on the side of the truck bed, reaching in and pulling the basket back out, Vaughn laughing as he watched her. He swung himself into his pickup, looking over to her with a grin. Unbelievable. “And I’m sorry to cut it short.” She mentioned as she dug into the basket again before he turned the key in the ignition. “Like you said, gives me somethin’ to look forward to next time.” He chuckled. “An’ I’ll have one o’ those.” He mentioned as he stuck the truck into reverse, taking a sandwich off of Louise with a smile as he looked behind him. He put his foot gently on the gas and reversed out of the wooded area and back onto the road, spinning the truck around and making his way back towards Elm Avenue.

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Night Prowler

He watched the lights on the black pickup slowly disappear into the trees, the sound of the engine fading into the distance. He was finally alone. He crept out from behind the tree he had been crouched behind and walked over to the lake, standing no more than two feet from where Louise had been an hour ago. He had seen everything. The way they had looked at each other. The way he had touched her. The way she had teased him with those damn cookies. The way he had kissed her and pulled her into him. His jaw tensed as he felt bile rising in his throat. “Fucker.” There was no other word he could use, and even that one wasn’t what he was looking for. He had followed her to Shelby’s after she had torn out of her driveway like she was on speed, keeping as far back as possible so that she wouldn’t see him, especially on the way back. He had managed to park a little further up the street and sneak down the side of her house to listen in on the girls in the back yard. He was just thankful that her nosey neighbour, Mrs. Kasabrak hadn’t been around. That woman couldn’t keep a secret to save her life. He had snuck back out to his truck when he had heard the rear door slam shut and their voices disappear, sitting in wait for Vaughn’s pickup truck to arrive. A couple of turns and he had known exactly where he was taking her. Shiloh Lake. Perfect. Fucker. He crouched down and picked up a smooth stone out of the gently lapping ripples. The threw it full force out into the lake, it violently skimming the surface five times before plopping into the water.

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There was a fire that was raging inside him as he stood there by the lake, the eerie silence enough to dig deep into his senses and drive him a little crazier than usual. There was no wind rustling through the trees anymore, and the ripples on the lake had almost vanished. He was alone with his thoughts, his mind returning to Vaughn being between her legs and on top of her. He kicked the water in disgust before turning around and throwing a solid punch into the trunk of the tree Vaughn had been standing against whilst he’d had a cigarette. Bark fell to the ground and the blood from his knuckles ran down the light flesh of the tree. “If I get my hands on him I’m gonna kill him.” It was more of a promise than a threat. He moved his gaze down to his hand that had already started to swell, wiping the blood away on his jeans before flexing it, pain radiating up his arm and making him angrier. “I think I’m gonna have to change my plans a little.” He grinned as he thought about the extra’s, and if Vaughn was really into Louise, he kn ew that he’d come looking for her at some point. And that could definitely be more fun than he had originally anticipated. Good thing I still have my baby in the back room. He had a wild grin on his face as he made his way back to the lake and bent down on one knee to pick up another stone. He tossed it in the air twice as he imagined the fun he’d have before skimming it across the lake again, not moving from the position he was in. The fire burned in his eyes as she popped up in his head again, sitting not even inches away from that cowboy as she placed his hat on his head. Slut. I knew

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it. I knew it. He clenched his eyes shut as he ran his hands through his hair roughly. God dang it. He needed to get hold of his leverage. He knew he had to wait until the opportune moment, but it was all getting a little too much for him to handle. It will come along soon enough, so stop you’re whinin’. He cursed himself as he opened his eyes and stood up, looking across the lake. It will come. He turned slowly, a chill now in the air as he made his way back through the trees to where he had parked his truck. It will come, don’t worry ‘bout that.

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Shut Up & Dance

It was five in the afternoon and Louise and Shelby were sitting on the couch watching ‘New In Town’, Shelby with a bottle of Bud Light in her hands and Louise with a cup of coffee. They had been watching television most of the day, Shelby’s eye black and blue, but the swelling having gone down some overnight. They had been out once to grab some groceries, Shelby insisting that Louise stock up on beer again, just for her, and they grabbed a couple of CD’s while they were at it. Louise had told Shelby that she could mix some on the computer, but she had said that she’d wanted a couple of new ones anyway, never quite liking the idea of downloading. Shelby had been virtually asleep when Louise had shown up last night, Vaughn having walked her to the door and kissed her again softly before saying goodbye and letting her go. Louise had slowly woken her up, Shelby wanting to sleep in the bed upstairs with her as she was still a little shaken up from earlier, not that she would admit it. Shelby had fallen straight to sleep, not bothering to ask about how it went with her and Vaughn. Louise had stayed awake for a little longer, watching her friend, finally at peace. The trials of the day had obviously been a little too much for her. Vaughn had text Louise at 3am, saying nothing but ‘X’, Louise se nding one back with a smile. She had been in two minds whether to ring him, but decided that she ought not to. Louise had finally drifted off to sleep around four, only for Shelby to wake her up after four hours sleep, her first words not being ‘morning’ but rather ‘off the charts?’ Louise only finding it in herself to laugh. Louise had then told her friend

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everything about last night, after bringing up two cups of coffee for them to have while she told the story, Shelby added a few ‘oh my God’s’ to the conversation when she heard how things had got a little more than hot. Right now they were watching the main character strap a red babydoll to the aerial of her rental car, Shelby turning to her friend and saying, “You sure ya don’t want one?” Shaking her bottle slightly. “I tell you what, I actually like that stuff, so I might in a minute . Let me finish this and I’ll get one.” Louise replied with a smile. “Since when did you try Bud Light?” She raised her eyebrows before it finally clicking into place in her head. “Ah, those guys that took you out the other night into Enterprise. Naughty, naughty miss Louise.” She wagged her finger at her friend before erupting into a laugh. “What?” Louise shrugged with a grin big enough to fill her entire face. “Well, ya could save at least one for me ya know. Can’t have ‘em all.” “I thought you said you were done with boys?” Shelby smiled as she lifted her eyebrows again. “Well, ya know how it is.” “Terrible Shelby. Absolutely terrible.” Louise rolled her eyes as she watched the movie character drunkenly fumbling around trying to put her key in the lock of her rented house. She burst into laugher, Shelby doing the same. “I’m gettin’ you that drink. Cup.” Shelby motioned Louise to give her the almost empty coffee mug that was in her hand. “Okay, fine, I give.” She handed her the mug, Shelby jumping up from the couch in a ‘yes’ and running to the kitchen to fetch Louise a beer . “You are a very bad influence.” She shouted to her friend as she heard the refrigerator door slam closed.

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“I’m gonna get y’all drunk so you dance with me later.” Shelby said as she threw herself back onto the couch, handing Louise a bottle of Bud Light. “You know I’ll dance with you.” Louise replied taking a sip. “This is so good.” “I know you will, but I wanna loosen you up.” “I’m bored of this film now. Seen it too many times” “Yeah, I know what you’re sayin’ an’ maybe that beer is havin’ an effect already. Wanna put on some tunes an’ have a little wiggle?” Shelby laughed, reaching for the remote to turn off the DVD player and switch the input on the television to the computer hard drive. “Choose something good. I’m not in the mood for crap. And it’s five forty five, so maybe we should-” “Order that pizza? I’m on it sugar.” Shelby finished as she raced back into the kitchen, only to appear a few minutes later having ordered a large ham and pineapple along with some ice cream. “I’ve got a song for you.” She said as she used the mouse underneath the television to select a song, the music blaring out of the surround sound speakers and filling the whole of the downstairs. “Oh my God. Only you.” Louise said as she got up off the couch and took another sip of her beer before spinning Shelby around to ‘Whatever You Want’ on her way to the bathroom. When Louise arrived back, she slouched down on the couch, lying on her back and tapping her hand on the seat back. Next thing she knew Shelby had jumped on top of her, tickling her sides and making her squeal with laugher. “Shelby! Get off.” “You love it.” Her friend replied as she fell on her butt on the floor laughing, the song changing automatically on the computer.

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“I swear you’re a lesbian sometimes.” Louise said as she lifted herself up and whacked her friend with a throw cushion, still laughing as she did. “Nope. Definitely not a lesbian.” She reassured her friend. “How do I know?” Louise tested. “’Cause I like boys too much, an’ the thought o’ takin’ a gal to bed makes me wanna be sick. Oh no, I think I’m gonna throw up.” Shelby stood up and made sick noise as she leant over Louise, both of them rolling around laughing, the song changing to ‘He Wasn’t’. “This song is so me an’ you baby girl.” Shelby said as she got up and started to dance. Louise joined her in a huff, bottle of beer still in her hand as she jumped around to the song with her friend. “I think it’s time for a smoke before the pizza arrives. I don’t know what it is about beer, but it makes me want to chain smoke. Probably half the reason I stopped drinking in the first place.” Louise said to her friend. “I know it was somethin’ else baby girl, an’ I think you do too.” Shelby picked up the pack and they both made their way out the back of the house to their usual spot. “I think we should move this here plate thingy to the front for tonight. Ain’t draggin’ me out the back every time I wanna smoke.” “On that you’re right. I think we should.” Louise said as she bent down and picked up the pot plate. “If you’re quick you don’t have to put it out.” She said as she motioned for them to run through the house and out the front door so they could finish off. “I’ll race you. One. Two, three go.” Shelby ran as if her life depended on it, cigarette between her fingers and being careful not to knock the ash onto the floor.

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She swung open the front door and almost careered into the pizza delivery man. “Oh gosh, I’m sorry.” “Ain’t no problem.” He said as Louise joined them, balancing her cigarette on the plate as she put it on the window ledge. She ran back inside to get her purse, handing over the cash as Shelby took the pizza. “Thanks now, y’all have a good night.” The delivery man said before jumping back into his car and speeding off down the road. He just missed a new silver pickup that was slowly driving down the opposite side. “Wow. Now he was nice.” Shelby said looking back at Louise. After a couple of minutes they both made their way back inside, Louise quickly taking on last puff of her cigarette. Both of the girls sat on the living room floor in front of the television having turned the music down slightly and flicked the lamp on in the corner. The pizza box was between them and the ice cream was sitting on the coffee table ready to be eaten. They laughed and joked as they finished off the whole thing, Louise taking the box into the kitchen ready to throw out in the trash, arriving with two spoons in her left hand and two more beers in her right, bottle opener in her jean pocket. “You’re my hero.” Shelby smiled as she reached for her spoon, Louise putting the beers down on the table. “An’ the party has officially started.” “Well, it’s just past seven, so I can safely say I totally agree.” Louise said with a smile on her face as she sat back down on the floor and tucked into the tub of ice cream. “This is damn good.” “Pass me a beer, I wanna try somethin’.”

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“What are you doing?” Louise laughed as her friend took a spoon of ice cream and then a swig of beer before swallowing. “Heck that’s awesome. Try it. Nothin’ like Bud flavoured ice cream.” She said with a laugh, Louise shaking her head as she reached for her own bottle. “Oh wow. The bubbles go up your nose and everything.” She said as Shelby laughed. “Phone.” Shelby pointed to Louise’s phone on the coffee table as it just started to ring. “Don’t ask, you know I’m gifted.” “I know.” Louise replied as she picked up the phone, there being no caller ID, but answering it anyway. “Hello?” “Louise. It’s Matt. I called a minute ago but no one answered.” “Hey, Matt. You have no caller ID on.” Louise said as she smiled at Shelby and, standing up, moved to the stairs. She sat a couple of steps up, Shelby following her and leaning on the banister. “I know, I like to stay anonymous.” He flirted down the phone, Louise sneakily putting the cell on speaker so Shelby could hear him. “Random. So how come you’re calling?” “Well, I’m off to Arizona tomorrow.” “And?” Louise said, Shelby trying to hold in a giggle by holding her hand over her mouth. “An’ well, I was wonderin’ what y’all were doin’ tonight, maybe wanna catch a movie or somethin’ before I go? Hang on, what’s that music?” “Well mister MacLewland, my bestest friend and I are actually having a girls night.” “Louise?” He asked, an obvious chuckle in his voice.

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“Yuss?” “Have y’all been drinkin’?” “Erm, maybe one.” She laughed, waving at Shelby to go away before she burst into laughter. “One?” He didn’t believe her. “Okay, two. And I’m not drunk, just a little… What’s the word?” She said as she looked over to her friend who had almost calmed down. “Loose!” Shelby shouted so that Matt could hear her on the other end of the phone. “I take it y’all are havin’ fun over there?” He said with a light laugh. “Yeah. Think we may need an extra few bodies to dance with though.” Louise said as Shelby nodded her head on her way back over to the stairs, mouthing a ‘yes please’ to Louise. “Really? Well, I think I know a couple o’ cowboys that are great dancers.” He suggested down the phone, his tone almost teasing. “Well, I think that maybe you should get those fine cowboys to put on their hats and boots and get their Wrangler asses over here.” She grinned, Shelby’s eyes wide with shock at what Louise had just said. She stayed that way for a second or two before falling to her knees and clutching her stomach, doubled over with laughter. “And I think my friend is having a heart attack, so make it quick.” “Well, that told me now, didn’t it? Want anythin’?” “Beer. We’ve only got one left.” “Okay sugar. I’ll see you in say, thirty minutes?” “Make it twenty.” She gave Shelby an over exaggerated wink. “That desperate huh?”

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“Wouldn’t you like to know, cowboy.” She flirted. “Tease. I’ll try for fifteen.” And with that he hung up, Louise and Shelby waiting until the call had disconnected. As soon as it had, both of them burst into hysterical laugher. “Cowboy party!” Shelby screamed and she pulled Louise off the stairs and to the closet, pulling out their boots. Both of them slipped their feet in before running into the living room and pushing back the couch slightly, exposing more of the wood floor. The girls moved back to inspect their handy work before turning up the music and dancing along. Soon enough there was a knock on the door. The girls stopped what they were doing before four cowboys entered laughing between themselves as they tumbled in. Matt was in the lead followed by Dale and then Terry and Tyler, everyone other than Matt bringing in the beers.. “Howdy.” Matt said as he walked straight over to Louise and gave her a friendly peck on the cheek. “Hey.” She said back as Shelby poked her. “Matt, Shelby. Shelby, Matt.” “Wow.” Shelby gasped as Matt smiled at her. “What?” Matt frowned as he looked between the two girls. “Somethin’ I missed?” “Not at all.” Louise replied, elbowing her friend in the ribs. “Let me introduce her to these other guys.” And with that she pulled Shelby over to the other three who had made their way into the kitchen, obviously to chill the beers. Matt followed with a laugh and leant against the island. “Hey sweet thing.” Said Dale as Louise and Shelby waved at them, all around the open refrigerator.

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“This is Shelby.” She said to the men, each one of them wearing a hat, and she couldn’t help but smile. “Shelby, that’s Dale.” She pointed and he waved. “That’s Terry.” She pointed as he tipped his hat. “And the last one is Tyler.” “Well hey there boys.” Shelby said, exaggerating her Southern twang. “Now don’t mind this here eye, its fine. Just don’t go pokin’ it.” She said, the boys erupting into laugher, it evident that they weren’t bothered by it in the slightest. “Beer anyone?” Terry said as he handed out some beers. “Let’s go back in the living room people.” Louise took the beer from Terry as he put his arm around her shoulders. Shelby fell into step with Dale. “And don’t worry about the boots.” “Hey I know a good song for you ladies.” Matt said as he knelt down in front of the television and grabbed the mouse, hunting around Louise’s player for the song he wanted. “I love this song!” Louise shouted as “Midnight Sun” rang out of the speakers and she took Shelby by the hand. She swung her around as the Terry sat himself on one of the arms of the couch. Tyler was on the back and Dale sat facing the television with his feet up on the coffee table. Louise noticed Matt leaning against the wall, his arms crossed as he watched her and Shelby before walking over to them. Louise smiled as she let go of her friends’ hand, offering it casually to Matt. “Well now, I don’t mind if I do.” He said with his signature smile as he pulled her to him with a laugh. “Well, who wants to dance with me now?” Shelby said as she made her way over to the couch.

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“It would be my pleasure ma’am.” Terry tipped his hat with a smile as he jumped down from his perch and took Shelby by the hand. He twirled her over to where Louise and Matt were, all four of them dancing and laughing as they did. Louise hadn’t danced like this for so long and was having to adjust back to it. If Matt hadn’t been such a great dancer, she’d have f ound it difficult, but he made it seem like she was floating on air. Matt twirled Louise around under his arm before using his free hand to take off his hat, placing it on her head, and pulling her back into him, twisting with her in his arms.

*

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*

They all danced for another hour and a half, Louise and Shelby swapping partners every now and again as to not let the guys feel left out. Everyone had been laughing and smiling and slowly getting through the beers that were in the refrigerator, Matt not wanting to drink too much because of the up and coming rodeo. The cowboys were enjoying flicking through Louise’s music collection, seeing what sort of music she really listened to. They all got a little carried away with some of the songs, but it was all in the name of fun. “I think it’s time for a smoke!” Shelby shouted as Dale twisted her under his arm before pulling her back to him. “Good call.” Dale said as he dancing with her for another second or two before taking her by the hand. He led her to the front door, shutting it behind them as

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they exited. “So, ya mind me askin’ what happened?” Dale said as he lit Shelby’s cigarette and then his. “My ex broke in an’ hit me for not openin’ the door.” She said as she looked into his eyes. “What a jerk.” He said as he leant against the wall. “Tell me ‘bout it. Been divorced for three years now an’ he still thinks he’s gotta hold on me. Don’t know what I’d do if Louise wasn’t there.” “Y’all seem like you have a pretty tight bond.” “Yeah, we do. Never clicked with anyone like her. She really is special.” She smiled at him, it moving into her eyes and he felt his heart skip. He was slightly taken aback, not expecting it in the slightest. “I don’t mean to be rude or anythin’ but what’s goin’ on with her an’ Matt? You know anythin’?” He asked her as gently as possible, knowing that Louise would have told her that him and Vaughn were still good friends. He wanted to know what the heck was going on, knowing that Matt usually pushed things with the opposite sex a little too far and landed himself in trouble. “She’s just havin’ a little fun is all. Y’all know her heart belongs to Vaughn.” She puffed on the cigarette. “She’s a good gal, ain’t ever been one to ride two horses with one ass, ya know what I’m sayin’?” “Yeah, I get you. Just don’t want anyone gettin’ hurt is all. Had enough o’ that ‘round here. Too many sour grapes an’ not enough forgivin’ in my eyes.” Dale took a long drag before putting his arm around Shelby’s shoulder, her smiling as he pulled her into him slightly. He noticed something catch her eyes and followed her gaze over to a silver pickup truck that cruised up the street.

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“Strange.” She frowned. “Why for?” He asked, his eyes moving back to her. “I saw that truck earlier, is all.” Her eyes met his. “Not seen it ‘fore round here.” He smiled. “Probably nothin’ to worry ‘bout darlin’.” “I guess.” She smiled and Dale saw something in his eyes that made his heart warm.

*

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*

Back inside, Louise had left the other three men in the living room to browse through songs as she went to grab another Bud Light from the refrigerator. As she opened it she realised that they had actually drunk quite a bit, but none of them were that drunk. And Louise could still walk in a relatively straight line. “Tyler an’ Terry have joined the other two outside for a smoke.” Came the voice from behind her, almost making her jump as she straightened up. She turned around slowly with a smile on her lips. “So you thought you’d come and annoy me?” She shut the refrigerator door and leant back against it slightly looking into Matt’s eyes. “Thanks. Am I really that bad?” He flirted, leaning against the island casually. “You know you’re not.” “Well good. I thought you didn’t drink?” “I have you and Shelby to thank for that. Well, Terry, not you. If you know what I mean.” She said raising her eyebrows as she opened the bottle and took a swig.

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“I was gonna say, it weren’t me that wanted you to try it. I was fine with ya havin’ water. Less for me to pay for.” “Thanks for that. Where’s the love?” She chuckled. “You know where the love is sugar.” Matt winked, her almost spitting out the beer she was about to swallow, moving over to the sink so she didn’t spill it all over the floor. Matt burst into laugher. “You are so crude.” Louise said as she placed her bottle on the side and wiped her mouth with a dish cloth that was folded on the counter top. “No I’m not.” “Yeah let me guess, that was me, not you.” She said it sarcastically but couldn’t help but smile. “Yeah. Totally you.” He moved over to her and picked up the bottle, taking a swig out of it. “An’ I think you’ve ‘bout had enough little lady.” “Do you? Well, let me just finish this one and that’s it. Coffee and water for me the rest of the night.” She tried to reach over for the beer, him moving his arm so that it was in the air above his head. “Please?” “If ya can’t reach it you ain’t havin’ it.” He laughed as she tried her best to reach for it. “That’s it, plan B.” She said as she put one knee on the kitchen top and pulled herself up. Matt laughed as she reached again, this time just missing it as he moved backwards. “C’mon, y’all can do better than that.” “Matt, this is so not funny.” She said as she leant back on her heels. “Yeah, it is.” He said as he moved closer to her, lowering his arm and offering her the bottle with a smile.

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“And I know a nice purple weakness of yours, so don’t mess. Now, do I or don’t I?” She asked, squinting her eyes slightly in thought as she moved her legs so that they dangled over the side. “I’m only playin’. Here. An’ that’s not nice.” He gave her the bottle and she took it with a smile, taking a sip but without taking her eyes from his. She noticed that he had moved a little closer as she felt pressure on her knees. “Thanks cowboy. So, you all set for next week?” She said a little more seriously as she placed her Bud Light on the side next to her, keeping her hand around it. She knew that he was a little closer than he should be, and the look in his eyes told her he did too. “Sure thing. Gotta long drive ahead o’ me, but other than that I’m fine , including that bruise you just mentioned. Couple o’ guys ridin’ with me so they should keep me entertained. You gonna miss me?” He shifted forward slightly to stand between her knees, the mischievous smile of his making her heart skip a beat. Oh hell. “I don’t know. I might do. And you, mister, should watch where you put those hands.” She raised her eyebrows as she felt his hands moving slowly up her thighs, trying her hardest to keep a straight face. She jumped as she heard the front door slam and the laugh of the other four as they moved back into living room, Matt dropping his head in a chuckle before sliding his hands from Louise’s legs and looking back over his shoulder. “C’mon.” He said looking back at her and offering her his hand. “You like to push it don’t you?” She asked as she disregarded his hand and reached for her bottle. “An’ what’s wrong with that?” He whispered in her ear as she fell into step by his side. He placed his hand on the small of her back, sending a tingle up her spine.

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“Nothing, but right now I’m in the mood to have some fun.” She smiled up at him before dashing into the living room and jumping onto the couch next to Shelby, them both using their bottles as microphones as they started to sing along. The men around them laughed as they watched, Dale taking out his phone to record them, leaning back on the couch as he did. Louise clocked him and moved to swipe it with a giggle, almost falling onto the floor.

*

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It eventually came round to early morning, everyone having drank more than enough and finally starting to calm down. The music was low and easy to listen to compared to earlier on in the evening. They were all sitting on the couch, the only exception being Louise who was sitting on the floor resting against the front with her legs outstretched. “I haven’t had this much fun in years.” Louise commented as they all chatted away. “Me either.” Shelby said as she looked down at Louise, the back of her head resting on Dale’s lap. “Maybe y’all should come with me on the road next time an’ get dancin’ in the bars after the rodeos. Nothin’ like the atmosphere of a honky tonk full o’ rodeo cowboys, that’s for sure.” Matt said to the girls as he sat on the couch, his left arm over the back and ankle resting on his knee. “I guess you’re right. May have to take you up on that one sometime.” Louise smiled up at him.

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“I’m beat.” Tyler added randomly, making everyone burst out laughing. “An’ I think I’ve drank a little too much.” “You always drink too much little man.” Terry replied, kneeling up on the couch slightly to push his friend who was sitting on the couch back. Tyler lost his balance and fell off, landing on his back on the floor with a bang. “Hey, I didn’t spill a drop.” He said smiling to himself as he lay on his back, everyone bursting into laugher as they watched him slowly get up. “You are such an arse.” Louise said as he clambered back over the back of the couch and sat down again. “That’s Terry, not me.” He answered as he kicked Terry lightly. “That’s where you’re wrong. Terry’s the town idiot, which makes you, as Louise said, an ass.” Matt said, matter-of-factly. “Actually,” Louise started, pointing up at Matt. “I said arse.” “Okay, so ya did.” He winked down at her. “Well then Matt, what does that make you?” Terry asked. “He’s a show off.” Dale said, finally taking his eyes from Shelby’s. “So that makes you, let’s see. Anyone think o’ what Dale is?” It was obvious Matt was stumped. “Wannabe.” Said Tyler, pointing his bottle at Dale before adding, “’Cause he’s a wannabe rock star.” Terry chuckled before saying, “Yeah. That’s a good one Ty.” “I play guitar.” Dale said as Shelby looked up at him with a frown. “He’s pretty good actually.” Added Matt. “How come you didn’t bring it with you?” Louise asked.

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“No one asked. We’ll have to take a night an’ go camp somewhere, then I can serenade y’all ‘round a camp fire while y’all roast wieners.” Dale smiled and looked down at Shelby. “Sounds a mighty fine idea to me.” She said back to him before looking down to Louise. “You’re goin’ too.” “That’s you telling me is it?” Louise said with a chuckle as she tilted her head back to look at Matt. “Only if you come.” “Have to wait ‘til I’m back sugar.” “We can wait for you, that ain’t no problem. Gives me chance to write some stuff ready.” Dale laughed. “Wow, have you seen the time people?” Louise said as she checked the time on her watch that she had thrown on the coffee table earlier. It had got in the way of her dancing earlier on. “Nope.” Tyler replied. “I’m guessin’ ‘round one.” “Try adding another hour and a half.” Louise said before looking back up at Matt. “You’re on the road tomorrow mister.” “I know.” He smiled down at her. “I think, boys, we should call it a night.” He said to the others, Tyler sliding down onto the couch so he could stand up. “And you can all sleep in the basement. I’m not letting you drive, especially after the amount you’ve all been drinking.” Louise was adamant they shouldn’t, and the men agreed with her. “Shelby, you’re coming up with me sweetness. I have a funny feeling that Dale may just have to sneak into the spare room if you stop down here.” “Hey, I wouldn’t do that, y’all know I wouldn’t.” Dale replied sounding wounded but with a mischievous smile in his eyes all the same.

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“Doesn’t mean you ain’t thinkin’ ‘bout it man.” Terry raised his eyebrows. “Come on boys, I’ll show you all downstairs. There are three bedrooms, one has two beds in so there’s plenty of room. You’ll have to share the bathroom down there though.” Louise got up and made her way to the basement door, Matt following closely behind tailed by the others.

*

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*

Louise showed them the rooms, Tyler and Terry being forced to share, Matt and Dale having one each. Tyler and Terry said goodnight first, Tyler obviously not feeling too good and Terry looking very tired. Dale then said goodnight, pulling Shelby to one side and kissing her gently, Matt and Louise looking on in shock, but smiling all the same. “Come on you, upstairs, before you end up in a drunken fumble.” Louise said with a chuckle. Dale broke the kiss and disappeared around the bedroom door with a smile, shutting it as Shelby blew him a kiss. She giggled and made her way to the stairs. “You best be followin’ me girlie.” She called as she started her ascent. “I will.” Louise called after her before turning her attention back to Matt. “Thank you for coming tonight. You made it really fun and I think Shelby enjoyed herself. It’s just what she needed.” “What ‘bout you?” Matt said as he took a step back and leant against the wall to the bedroom that was being occupied by the other two cowboys.

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“What do you mean?” Louise said, leaning back against the bedroom Matt was going to be staying in. “You know. Enjoy yourself?” He had that smile on his lips again and her heart involuntarily skipped a beat. “Yes, I did.” She felt a slight blush rise to her cheeks and lowered her head, looking back up at him and catching his stare. “You sure?” He moved from the wall and took a few steps closer to her, not moving his eyes from hers. She could feel the tension in the air and took a breath. “Of course I’m sure. Haven’t had a night like this in too long.” She was starting to feel a little nervous, her hands sweating slightly as he moved closer again, this time placing his left hand on the wall besides her head and leaning into her. “Well, thank you for invitin’ me.” He said in an almost whisper, as he leant down to kiss her cheek, her heart jumping as his lips lightly touched her skin. “Goodnight Louise.” He said as he pulled away and took his hand from the wall, moving towards the bedroom. “Night.” It was all she could muster as he smiled at her and closed the door with a click.

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Cadillac Ranch

“Hey Louise, its Vaughn. Thought I’d leave you a message ‘cause ya haven’t answered. Erm, there’s this thing tonight, just wonderin’ if ya wa nna go. Gimmie a call back, an’ I’ll pick you up later. Have a surprise for you too if ya do wanna come.” Vaughn said to her cells answer phone, trying to sound upbeat but not feeling like it at all. He had heard about Wednesday and wasn’t too pleased. He thought that Matt would have understood to stay away from her. He knew that they weren’t official, but couldn’t help feeling jealous, especially after what had happened a few years ago. It was still so hard for him to trust and get along with Matt and he couldn’t quite believe that Louise would go behind his back like that. Maybe he was reading too much into it as usual, but he wasn’t going to take any chances, instead he’d ask her without being too intense. He walked over to the decked steps of his house before sitting down and taking a sip of his coffee, glad to have a weekend off from the ranch. Jerry had said that he was having a couple of family members up that wanted to try their hand at some farm work. All of a sudden his phone rang, startling him. He saw the caller ID flash ‘Louise’ and hesitated for a second, trying to think of what to say before rea lising that if he thought about it, he wouldn’t answer. “Hey.” “Hey. So, what’s going on tonight then?” Louise sounded very chirpy, and he couldn’t help but smile. Her accent always seemed to have that effect on him. “If I tell ya that it wouldn’t be a surprise now, would it? So, you fancy it?” “Yeah sure. Why not. Enjoying your Saturday off?” She asked.

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“Yeah actually, just takin’ in the day. It’s beautiful.” He shifted slightly, moving his right foot up a step and fiddling with his boot. “Tell me about it. I’m out in the garden.” “Yeah, me too. Kinda.” He thought about asking the question, and finally did. “I heard ‘bout Wednesday night. Have fun?” The jealously came out in his voice and he cursed himself for not changing his tone a little more. “I did actually. Shelby had a little more fun than me though. I think her and Dale hit it off pretty well. Should have seen them in the morning, they were inseparable.” She chuckled as she said it. “What ‘bout you an’ Matt? Heard y’all got pretty close.” “Is that jealousy I hear? There is no me and Matt, Vaughn. Honestly. Besides, I think I like someone else a little too much, and would never even dream of two timing. Just isn’t me.” “Promise?” He said it with a smile, knowing from her tone that she wasn’t lying. “Cross my heart.” “Now, who’s this other someone then?” He was teasing her. “Well, he’s rather tall, handsome, has stunning brown eyes and owns one of the most beautiful horses I’ve ever seen.” “Anythin’ else you wanna tell me ‘bout him?” “Nope. The rest is for me to know only.” He chuckled. “Okay, fair enough. So you up for later?” “Of course. Now, what’s this surprise you have for me?” He heard her move on the other end of the line.

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“I ain’t gonna pick ya up in the Sierra. That’s the surprise.” A huge grin spread across his face as he said it, glancing over to the open garage. The front of his black 1968 Dodge Charger R/T peeked out from behind the wall, the chrome bumper glinting in the sunlight. “Ooo, now I’m excited. Is it going to be worth my while?” She said it with a playful tone. “Oh I think it will be. That is if you’re the gal I think you are.” “I sure am. Right, I’m going to have to go, got some bits I need to get done over here.” “I’ll see you later then. Keep a look out for a black car, an’ I ain’t tellin’ ya when I’m comin’ neither.” He was being playful with her again, but he knew that she liked it from the giggle he heard on the other end. “You coming after dark?” She asked. “Yeah, so be ready.” “Surely will.” He heard her giggle again. “See you later, cowboy.” “Look forward to it.” He hung up, flicking the cell phone around in his hand for a second before moving his gaze back to the Charger with a smile. He placed his phone in his pocket as he stood up, moving over to the gleaming black and chrome beauty that was just begging to be driven. Out of all the cars he had restored over the years, his Dodge Charger was by far his favourite. All the numbers on the 440 Magnum engine and body matched, the color was original as were the seats, it only having done thirty one thousand kilometres since new. The engine had been reconditioned by none other than himself, and the only new parts were an exhaust, as the other had rusted, a new R/T badge for the front grill and the chrome had been reconditioned by a specialist. He

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had upgraded the usual things, like brakes and suspension, but he never wanted to take away the character of one of the best muscle cars in history. He hadn’t been out in his Charger for almost a year, the last time being when Cindy left. He had driven so hard that he had scared himself stupid and almost ended up in a fridge in the morgue. Vaughn wasn’t easily scared by any sort of horsepower, it being eight seconds or miles per hour, but that night, he had nearly killed himself. He ran his hand along her gleaming body as he walked around to the back, admiring the piece of art that sat in front of him. She was begging him to jump into the driver’s seat and pin the throttle to the floor, but he knew that he should save it for later. He hoped that Louise would like the car, but deep down he knew she’d go crazy when she saw it. He ran his hand along the tail and carried on up to the driver’ s door, opening it and sitting down. He left one foot on the concrete of the garage floor as the other hovered over the gas pedal. He rubbed the steering wheel with both hands before turning the key that he had put in the ignition earlier, the Magnum block starting first time with a roar. The unique sound of the four hundred and forty cubic inch engine filled the air around him as he pressed down on the pedal. The revs climbed quickly, bringing a huge grin back to his lips. He gently released the pedal after a couple seconds, the engine falling back to the distinctive spluttering idle. He let the car warm up for a minute or so, still sitting in the driver’s seat, before switching off the ignition with a sigh. It was one in the afternoon and he couldn’t wait another six hours for seven ‘o’ clock to roll around, and wished there was something else for him to do to keep himself occupied.

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He left the keys in the ignition as he straightened up and started to make his way over to the hip roof barn that stood to the right of his house. He pulled open the right door, folding it back to the outside before doing the same with the left. He stood there for a minute or two admiring his fleet before walking inside and making his way over to the red 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88 that had its hood up. He placed his hands on the front panels and peered at the engine, wondering whether he should actually start fiddling or not. He straightened up thinking that he best not and stood back to admire the almost new paintwork. He’d spent a fortune on it already, but it was a small price to pay for the car that started the American muscle craze. He wanted it to be near perfect before he drove it. He walked around to the back of the Oldsmobile, running his left index finger along the back wheel arch and smiling to himself again. He had always wanted one of these cars, not only because it was beautiful in its own way, but because he was always drawn to them. He had never really known why. Vaughn stepped back to the doors that were behind his car and crossed his arms. I really need somethin’ to pass the time. He thought before walking back out of the barn and up to his house. He climbed the decked steps two at a time before entering, and, not bothering to take off his boots, ascended the stairs to his bedroom. He walked through the open loft area that had a small couch and coffee table before walking through the door and past the walk in closet that was on his right, the master en suite being to his left. He made his way over to the bed before he took off his Stetson, throwing it on the chair at the other side of the room and smiling as it landed perfectly. He took off his dark green shirt and placed it on the bed, being in two minds whether he should wear it that night.

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He walked back to his closet, taking his white t-shirt off over his head and replacing it with his brown plaid work shirt. He buttoned it up as he made his way back downstairs, not bothering to put his hat back on.

*

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*

Vaughn had made his way back out to the barn and that was where he stayed until his alarm when off in his pocket at 6pm, reminding him that he needed to get washed and changed. He had taken all of thirty minutes to be ready, putting on a pair of blue Wranglers that he hadn’t worn for over a year. He teamed it with a deep blue and white plaid shirt, another item he hadn’t worn for a while. He reached for his Stetson that was still sitting on the chair before he made his way downstairs and outside to the Charger, locking the door on the way out. He started the Magnum and smiled again as he flicked on the headlights, driving it out just enough so that he could jump out lower the garage door. He ducked back into his pride and joy, gently touching the gas and making his way towards Louise’s. He put his right foot slowly to the floor, watching the speedo rocket as he passed slower cars, smiling to himself. He had almost forgotten how much fun his toy really was. As he pulled onto Elm Avenue, he slowed down to a crawl, loving the sound of the engines idle. He was getting slightly more excited about Louise’s reaction as he crept up to her house, parking directly in sight of the front door and not switching off the engine. He knew she’d be able to see the whole car as she moved to the door, his positioning perfect.

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He saw a slight movement as he looked out of the passenger window, Louise appearing in the doorway with a hand over her mouth. He chuckled as she turned back to look into the house before returning her gaze to the muscle car. Heck, she looks… Wow. She was wearing the hipster jeans she’d worn to the lake, a green and black plaid shirt with rolled up sleeves and her boots, her shirt being loosely tucked into her jeans, showing off her amazing figure. Vaughn opened the door and stepped out with a huge grin across his face, leaning his forearms across the roof. “Surprised?” “To say the least. My God Vaughn, she’s, wow.” She turned and locked the front door of her house before walking over to the car, her eyes still wide as she took it in. “Ready?” He said, looking over the roof at her as she stopped at the side of the Charger. He noticed that she wasn’t wearing her watch, but shrugged it off. “Definitely.” She said as she opened the door, Vaughn getting back into the driver’s seat. “So, what d’ya think?” He said as he pulled away from the sidewalk giving her a smile. “Impressed. And speechless.” Was all she could muster to say. “Nineteen sixty eight R/T. She really is something Vaughn.” She smiled as she leant back in the seat and looked over to him. “I thought ya said you were speechless?” He laughed. “Well, you know what I mean. You look good. I like your shirt.” “Thanks.” He said glancing at what she was wearing. “You look good yaself. How’re ya with reckless drivin’?” He had a smug smile on his face as he glanced to

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look at her, them hitting downtown. A dangerous look crept into his eyes under his Stetson. She giggled. “As long as you don’t kill us, the faster the better.” She smiled at him seductively and he knew she didn’t just love American muscle because they were pretty and fun to mess around with. “You sure?” He glanced at her again as he pushed down his right foot, the rear tires only just holding the tail straight as the Charger kicked into life. They powered out of town down Interstate 84 towards Enterprise, and he knew that the thrill in her eyes wouldn’t look out of place in a totally different situation. “I love that noise!” Louise exclaimed excitedly, Vaughn laughing as they sped up to a line of four cars, passing them in a blur. Louise was looking through the rear window as they did, watching them disappear and chuckling the whole time. “I’d never pin you for a speed freak.” Vaughn said as she sat back in the seat with a satisfied smile. “Are you joking?” “Yeah, actually I am.” He laughed as he lifted his right foot and braked slightly before spinning the wheel and pressing down on the gas pedal again. He sent the back of the Charger sliding sideways as they hit Highway 87 South. “Now that would have made a damn good picture.” Louise’s, smile didn’t move from her eyes as Vaughn met her gaze again, slowing down slightly. “I think I underestimated your love for American muscle.” He said. “An’ we’re almost there.” “Most people do. I’m one for-” “Fast cars an’ slow kisses?” He gave her a wink as he slowed down a little more and turned into a dirt road that looked like it wouldn’t end.

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“You know me too well. And possibly even my music.” She smiled over at him. “I thought that was the whole point?” “Maybe. Where are we?” Louise asked as she leant forward, the dirt road obviously confusing her. “Like I said, it’s a surprise.” He smiled again and she shook her head with a laugh.

*

*

*

They pulled into a parking lot outside a rather large barn, smack in the middle of nowhere. Light was creeping through the small windows on both sides and out of a crack in the double door at the front. Louise couldn’t believe that anyone would even know it was here, let alone know how to get to it. Yet there were tens of cars, mainly trucks and older muscle, sitting silently in the lot. Vaughn manoeuvred the car into a space on the end of the back row of vehicles and came to a steady holt, the idle V8 splutter the only sound for three or four seconds before it was switched off. Vaughn looked over at Louise. “C’mon.” He said as he slid out of the car, the door clinking shut behind him. Louise followed suit. “Don’t you lock her?” “No need to.” Vaughn stood and waited for her, resting on the truck, one leg over the other. She ran her finger down the curves of car until she reached him, admiring its beauty for the second time that evening. As they started to walk towards the barn through the hoard of vehicles, Louise could swear she heard music playing, but shook the thought from her head. She’d been playing her stereo loudly earlier, and maybe the noise was still hanging around.

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As they neared the entrance she looked over at Vaughn as she heard laugher and the odd cowboy jeer. He turned to face her as they slowed down slightly, and with a teasing smile said, “Ya ever been to a barn dance?” Louise looked at him in wonder. “A barn dance? I thought those sorts of things were only in movies?” “Nope. Gots one right here.” He said as he slid the door a little to the right so that they could both squeeze through, closing it when they were inside. The atmosphere that greeted them was fun filled and friendly. There were people everywhere, sitting on rectangular hay bales laughing and jeering, others standing around a wooden bar to the right. People were dancing just in front of a stage across from the bar that had an energetic country band playing. They were currently playing a song that Louise regularly listened to on her stereo at home and in her truck, ‘Pride and Joy’ by ‘Stev ie Ray Vaughn’. “What d’ya think?” Vaughn said, leaning in a little closer so she could hear him. She shuddered at the movement, knowing he was only inches away as his cologne floated a little closer, filling her airways and making her blush. She felt a little overwhelmed and was sure he hadn’t worn cologne before. “It sure is something.” She smiled, turning her head to look straight into his eyes. As she did, time seemed to slow down, even stop for just a moment. All the music and laugher around them seemed to mute as they held each other’s gaze. Louise’s heart was thumping so hard she swore he could hear it, but instead he smiled back before turning his attention to the bar. “Wanna drink?” He said, looking over his shoulder to Louise as he started to make his way to the solid wood bar that had five or six people around it.

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“Yeah, why not.” She said as she followed him over, having to jog a few steps to catch up with him. Hey there stranger!” A lady in her early 40’s with long brown curly hair exclaimed from behind the bar as they approached, Vaughn placing his lower arm across the top, facing Louise. “Why hey there LouAnn.” He nodded at the lady. “Ain’t seen the likes o’ you ‘round here for a while.” She gave him a smile, half chewing gum at the same time. Looking over at Louise she added, “An’ who might this fine lady be?” “I’m Louise. Nice to meet you.” “An’ you too sugar.” She said before turning her attention back to Vaughn. “So what’ll it be? Usual?” Vaughn looked back to Louise. “So, what you havin’?” “Erm, I dunno. Maybe just a water? I don’t really drink.” She said leaning into Vaughn so that he could hear her over the music. That and she didn’t want to let the whole place know she wasn’t a drinker, Wednesday being the only exception to that in years. “Water? Well, I tell ya what. I’ll get you a water, only if ya have same as me when you’re finished.” “Are you blackmailing me?” She said with a cheeky half smile, moving her head away from him slightly so that he could see her eyes clearly. She knew his heart had started to race just a little faster by the raw desire that flashed momentarily in his eyes. He leaned into her, closer than before to whisper in her ear. “Well now, what if I am?” His breath tickled her ear, a shudder radiating up her spine. She took in his

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cologne yet again, causing her to shut her eyes for just a moment. He then turned back to LouAnn leaving her a little stunned. “Water for the lady an’ my usual.” “Sure thang.” LouAnn said as she turned around to fetch the two drinks, her Southern accent a little more pronounced than Vaughn’s. Louise took in her surroundings, smiling to herself as she watched couples and friends dancing and falling around laughing. She inadvertently started to tap her right foot in time with the beat as the band on stage started to play another song she recognised. She slowly turned and gave Vaughn a smile as she realised that he had been watching her, just as LouAnn placed the two drinks on the bar top. “Don’t worry ‘bout it sugar.” She said to Vaughn with a wink, before turning her attention to another customer that had just raced over to the bar. “Shall we?” Vaughn said to Louise as he took a sip out of his bottle and moved his arm off the bar. “There doesn’t seem to be anywhere to sit if that’s what you were thinking.” Louise answered, scanning the barn for a free chair. “I see one.” He said, motioning her to follow him over to some hay bales that were stacked three quarters of the way down the barn. They both weaved through the crowds of people standing to the side, Vaughn jumping onto a stack of hay bales before resting his feet on a shorter one below. There was enough room between them for Louise to sit in the middle. “I guess I’m sitting here?” It was a rhetorical question. She looked at the stack his feet were on before up at him, his deep brown eyes exposed from underneath his hat.

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“Sure are.” Vaughn said as she took up residence between his knees, his jeans sitting slightly higher than usual. They exposed the detailed design of his dark brown boots, engraved swirls and curves moving gracefully up from the tip. She hitched around slightly, leaning her left elbow lightly on his thigh so that she could turn her head to talk to him. “This is unreal.” Louise said as she turned to watch people dancing around the floor, all laughing and smiling. She also took in the groups and couples sitting around the edges of the dance floor, an arm wrestle going on around one of the tables squashed into the corner. “I used to come almost every weekend.” He leant down obviously so that he could say it rather than shout it. “Well, I wish I’d have known it was here.” She replied. “Yeah, it’s a great place. To be honest I’ve missed it.” He said with a smile, watching the band for a second or two. “Hey, you know LouAnn?” “Yeah?” “Guess what her real name is.” He said it with a chuckled as he turned his attention back to her. “What? That was random. And I have no clue. At a guess it’s something unexpected.” She smiled up at him, her blue eyes having a permanent smile. “Louisiana.” “Wow.” She chuckled. “Now that was very unexpected. How come you know that?” “Long story. Bet you ain’t ever known anyone with that name though huh?” He chuckled.

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“Nope. I’ve known people named after towns and such, but a whole State? That’s just cool.” She smiled back at him. “And Vaughn is a town. Actually, there are a few Vaughn’s around.” She said it matter-of-factly and watched as he burst into laugher. “Someone’s Googled me.” He laughed again. “Okay, so where? I know there’s one in Georgia.” “Okay, I’ll try to remember, but you are quite common.” She laughed as he nudged her.” “I’ll have you know I’m one of a kind sweetheart.” He winked and she couldn’t help but giggle. “There one in New Mexico, Montana, Mississippi, Kansas, Virginia. And I’m sure there are a few more, but I can’t remember them.” He rolled his eyes with a smile. “PA, Louisiana an’ Florida.” She looked at him gobsmacked. “I just wanted to see if ya got ‘em all. An’ I Googled you too.” She turned a little more so she was almost facing him. “Really? I’m famous in Texas and Arkansas.” “I know.” He chuckled. “But there’s still only one of me, so just remember that.” “So, changin’ the subject, how’re you with dancin’? An’ I don’t mean slow.” He looked at her straight in the eyes. “Out of practise, but getting there slowly.” She said back, not taking her eyes off his. “Me too. Wanna wait ‘till we’ve loosened up a bit?” “Yes please. Just don’t get me drunk.” She warned playfully.

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He put his hand gently on the top of her back, catching her off guard as he played with her hair, making her shiver. He then leant down and kissed her lightly on her lips, her heart doing a back flip. She hadn’t expected it at all, especially in public. “Couldn’t help myself.” Was his excuse as he pulled back after a few seconds. “I’m glad I have that effect on you.” She smiled. “Good, ‘cause you got no choice in the matter.” He smiled back. “Wait here, I’m just gonna go to the restroom.” “Don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere.” She said as he jumped down from his perch with a wink and headed towards the bar where the restrooms were situated.

*

*

*

Louise sat where she was for a couple of minutes, sipping on her water as she took in the barn that had been converted into a honky tonk, still not believing it actually existed. “Howdy little lady.” Came a voice she didn’t know and she looked to her right to see someone she thought she recognised. He was wearing a white cowboy hat along with a salmon colored shirt and dark blue Wranglers. “Hi. Sorry, you are?” She said with a slight frown but not meaning to be offensive. “I’m one o’ Vaughn’s ol’ friends. Name’s Steve. Steve Swindle” He said it with a smile. “Hi Steve. I’m Louise. If we’re doing last names too, Louise Best.” “Ah, so you were the lady Vaughn took out for a coffee the other day huh?”

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“That was you? I thought I recognised you from somewhere.” She said with a laugh, glad that it wasn’t some random man trying to chat her up. “Yeah, needed to have a quick talk with him ‘bout somethin’, sorry if I interrupted anythin’.” He had a very kind smile and it warmed Louise’s heart that he had taken the time to come and talk to her. “No, that’s fine. You were only there for, what, a couple of minutes at most?” “Pretty much. So, I guess he’s finally come outta his shell an’ bought ya down tonight huh?” He leant his right shoulder on the hay stack that Vaughn had been sitting on, waiting for her reply. “Yep, and I’m glad he did. This place is amazing.” She chuckled. “Well, you’ll have to come find me later, gimmie the pleasure o’ dancin’ with you.” He smiled as he glanced from the band to her. “Hey, you’re running pretty low.” He said as he looked down at her glass. “Want me to get you another?” “No, I’m fine thanks. Not quite ready yet, and I think Vaughn will get something on his way back over.” “Only if you’re sure?” “One hundred percent. And I may just have to take you up on the offer of a dance later on.” She smiled again as he righted himself. “Sure thing.” He gave her a wink. “Nice to meet you.” He touched the tip of his Stetson before turning and making his way through the crowd to the bar, obviously to get himself something to drink, and Louise watched as LouAnn reached over the bar to give him a kiss on the cheek.

*

*

*

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“LouAnn, honey, you know anythin’ ‘bout that Louise girl?” Steve said as he took a swig of the new bottle he was holding. “No clue sugar. She seems nice though.” She replied as she watched Vaughn climb back to where he was sitting before, both of them starting to talk again. “Vaughn looks happy enough. Ain’t seen him this crazy ‘bout a gal in almost forever.” She leant over the bar on her forearms, it being obvious that this conversation was going to be longer than she thought it would have been. Steve turned around so that he could watch Vaughn and Louise as they laughed, leaning back on his elbows on her bar, turning his head slightly and saying, “Offered to buy her a drink.” “She say no?” “Yeah.” “Well, ain’t no one said no to you in a while.” LouAnn remarked with raised eyebrows. “I know, ‘specially the few he’s bought down. An’ yeah, I know that was an age ago now. Think last time he was here was when Cindy up an’ ran, huh?” He replied. “Rebound gals.” “Yeah, an’ a lot o’ drinkin’ too. Think the last night he was here he almost dumped that car o’ his in a ditch.” “Yeah, I heard that. He’s a lucky sonofabitch, I’ll tell ya that much.” LouAnn shook her head as she said it. “Too lucky. Let’s just hope his luck don’t run out anytime soon.” He answered, both of them watching in shock as Vaughn took off his hat and placed it on Louise’s head with a laugh before ruffling up his hair.

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“Oh. My. Gosh.” LouAnn said as she stared wide eyed at the pair, Louise bent over in laughter. “He don’t ever take that thang off. Dang Stevie, she’s got him like no one’s had him ‘fore now, I can tell you that much.” Steve turned back around to face LouAnn as the pair climbed down from the bales, still laughing. Louise was still wearing Vaughn’s Stetson, him putting his arm around her shoulder as they walked towards the bar. They were aiming for the back door where the smokers went out to have their cigarettes. “Well I never.” LouAnn gasped as her eyes followed them outside. “Me either LouAnn. Me either. I just hope she’s worth it is all.” Steve said with wide eyes as he leant over the bar, LouAnn shrinking back down to her usual size before acknowledging someone behind him with a gentle nod. “Hey Steve, wanna dance?” Said the lady, Steve kissing LouAnn’s hand before turning around. “Howdy Carolynn. Sure I’ll dance.” And with that he disappeared from the bar, leaving LouAnn to look after his beer, placing it under the counter before returning to her customers.

*

*

*

“That was so not funny.” Louise squealed as Vaughn lit them both a cigarette. She was sitting on the arm of the wooden bench with her feet resting on the seat just next to him. “Then why’re ya laughin’?” Vaughn chuckled, taking both of the cigarettes out of his mouth and offering one to Louise.

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“That’s why. Because it wasn’t funny.” She laughed as she took the cigarette. “Thanks.” She said trying to calm herself down. “So, which is better? Tonight, or Wednesday?” He asked. “Oh definitely Wednesday.” Louise said bursting into laughter again. “Well, maybe I should have my hat back then?” He tried to stay serious as he reached for it, but he was far from it. “No chance.” She said as she leant back out of his reach. “No you don’t little lady.” He said as he knelt on the bench and moved towards her, fitting just between her knees as he grasped the arm of the bench. He didn’t bother to touch his Stetson but instead placed his arm around the top of her back, his hand on the back of her neck and in her hair. He gazed into her eyes with a smile before his lips met hers for the second time that night, only this time it was filled with lust, her having driven him crazy these last couple of hours. Their tongues wrapped around each other’s as they passionately kissed, it being more heated than when they were down at the lake. Vaughn’s hand was still on the back of her head and entwined in her hair as she put her arm around his shoulders. “What ‘bout now?” He said as he broke the kiss, his arm moving down to her waist and holding her in position on the slender piece of wood. “You know it’s tonight, silly.” She said with a satisfied smile, moving her fingers through his hair on the back of his head. “Still want your hat back?” “You look too good in it for me to take it off ya yet.” He kissed her on the cheek before looking down at his hand that was holding his cigarette. “Think I’ve gone off the idea.” He said before stubbing it out on the benches arm and throwing it into the sand of the cigarette bin.

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“Me too.” Louise did the same, Vaughn only releasing his grip around her waist slightly so that she could manoeuvre herself. “I love that shirt on you.” He said as she righted herself. “Well, I love that shirt on you. And you’re not wearing black jeans.” She caught his eyes with hers, saying it as she held his gaze. “Yeah, I fancied a change.” He said back, still holding her stare. “These jeans haven’t seen the light o’ day in years.” “I guess you’ve got a few things in your closet that haven’t seen the light of day for years. Maybe even night for that matter.” She smiled before he moved his arm from her waist and sat down on the bench, his feet back firmly on the floor. “I’ve done it again haven’t I?” “Nope, I just want ya to come sit down here with me, is all.” He looked back at her with a smile as she slid off the arm of the bench to join him, placing her feet on the opposite side of the seat, her back against the arm. He moved his right hand to cup her face, shifting slightly so that he could reach her. “Louise.” “Yes?” She answered. “You look amazin’, but, can I have my hat back please?” He was still semiserious, but she could tell he was only playing with her. “Vaughn.” She leaned slightly closer, a smile in her eyes. “Yeah?” He still hadn’t moved his hand. “I don’t know how to tell you this.” Louise replied, the smile fading from her eyes as she looked down at her jeans. “Tell me what?” His tone had changed to serious as she moved her legs from over his and placed her feet on the floor. His hand gently slipped from her face as

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she leant forward. He moved forward and scanned her face, concern on his. “Louise?” She stood up and walked a couple of steps. He watched as she placed her arm around one of the wooden support beams that was holding up the roof to the decked area. She turned around to face him, meeting his eyes with hers. “No way cowboy, this things mine.” “Louise!” He cried as he stood up from the bench and ran after her, her having backed away slightly before hitting a light run. He chased her out into the field that had once been pasture land, the light slowly fading as he caught up with her. “You, little lady, are so bad.” He caught her around her waist and swung her around to face him, both of them bursting into laughter. “An’ I think this here is mine.” He said as he took his Stetson back and placed it on his head before giving her a hard kiss on the lips. “What can I say, I love the trill of the chase.” She called after him as he started to make his way back to the bench. “You. Are. Terrible.” He mentioned as she reached him. He put his right arm around her shoulder and pulled her to him. She smiled as he gave her a gentle kiss on top of her head. “I love how little you are.” She looked up at him with a smile before replying. “Well, I love how tall you are. And I’m not going to tell you the other things I love.” “Decent or indecent?” He asked, a flare in his eyes. She laughed. “For me to know, for you to, maybe, find out.” She gave him a wink as he shook his head. “Umm.” They stepped back up onto the deck, sitting back down on the bench. “So that’s indecent then?”

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“Vaughn!” She said as he chuckled at her disbelief. “Louise.” He said mockingly. “I’m only askin’.” “Why do you want to know?” She questioned, a playful spark in her eyes. He leaned into her, his Stetson almost touching her forehead. “’Cause if it’s indecent, that’s just more fun now, isn’t it?” “Well, you’re just going to have to wait, because I’m not giving anything away.” She kept eye contact, the mischievous flickers in her eyes playing havoc on his heartbeat. “What’re ya doin’ tomorrow?” He asked in a sultry whisper. “All day?” “All day.” The air was charged and he loved how revved up it made him feel. Damn. “Nothing.” “You’re comin’ to mine.” “All day?” “Yeah.” He smiled, but kept the same penetrating whisper. “All day. I wanna show you somethin’.” She raised her eyebrows slightly. “Well, I bet you do.” “An’ it’s not what you’re thinkin’.” “And how do I know that?” She asked, a flirty smile spreading into her eyes. He smiled back at her, lowering his gaze before meeting her eyes again. “Well, you’ll just have to trust me now, won’t you?” “Okay, I’ll come. But I’ll need your address.” She moved closer to him, her lips only an inch away from his.

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“I’ll text you it in the mornin’.” He said as he looked into her eyes before down at her mouth. He moved his right hand to the back of her head and kissed her again, this time more gently than before. He could feel fire in her lips before he pulled away from her, the heated peck leaving him wanting so much more. Not yet Vaughn. “I’ll look forward to it.” “Good.” He sat back, still facing her but sitting upright again, his arm moving from the back of her head to around her knees. “So, you ready for a dance?” She smiled back before answering. “I thought you’d never ask.” “I just did. An’ I hope you’re nimble ‘cause I make Matt look like he’s got two left feet.” He winked at her as she laughed, both of them making their way back inside. Vaughn placed his hand lightly in hers as he walked her through the door, making her smile at the simple yet effective gesture. “Prove it.” She said as they walked past the bar, the song just changing to ‘Honky Tonk World’. “Don’t worry darlin’, I intent to.” He smiled, giving her a wink as he pulled her onto the dance floor.

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Pride & Joy

It was Sunday morning and Louise had set her alarm for 8am, hoping that she would be awake when she received the text she was waiting for from Vaughn. Sure enough, at eight twenty five he had text her the number and zip code for his house. She couldn’t quite believe how he had opened up to her the last couple of times they had spent time with each other, last night included. And he’s an amazing dancer. She thought as she messed around in her closet, not sure what to wear. She finally deciding on a white camisole with an open black and grey roll sleeved checked jacket that looked pretty much like a shirt. She teamed it with a pair of rolled up boot fit jeans and a new pair of dark brown boots with leather ankle straps that she had bought when she had gone shopping with Matt the week before. She looked at herself in the mirror before finally giving herself a nod on the clothing front, but fiddling with her hair. She really wanted to do something different. All of a sudden it dawned on her as she noticed a box hiding underneath one of her winter coats. Bending down she pushed the coat to one side and opened the box that was duck taped shut, finding one of the ends and tearing all the tape off before looking inside. She smiled as she found the item that she hadn’t seen for a good long while. Her straightening irons. She took them out and shoved the box back, standing up and making her way back into the bedroom, plugging them into the wall socket and pressing the ‘On’ button. She sat on the bed and waited for them to heat up before starting her mission, hairbrush by her side. After 15 minutes she looked at herself in the mirror and smiled, adding a pair of sunglasses she’d picked up off her dresser. Perfect. She thought as she reached into her pocket and pulled out her cell phone, walking down the stairs as she text

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Vaughn to say that she was on her way. There was a grin spread across her face. Two surprises in 24 hours was actually quite exciting. She grabbed her keys off the kitchen counter, giving Dakota a stroke before she made her way out of the front door and jumped into her truck. She leaned over and took the GPS out of the glove compartment and set it up on her dash, typing in the zip code that Vaughn had given her earlier, adding the house number when it prompted. Satisfied when it had found the route, she reversed the truck out onto the road and followed the directions it gave her. After a minute or so of driving, frowning to herself as she realised it was taking her down Highway 166 West, otherwise known as Hickman Avenue, she wondered why he hadn’t just told her it was down this way. She kept driving, slowing down when the GPS said to turn and her doing so, the Highway changing into a long dirt road with huge trees on either side. This has got to be so wrong. Louise thought as she kept to a crawl, leaning forward slightly over the steering wheel to try and see a little more in front of her. That was when she saw it. The house was magnificent, and more than stunning in the morning sunlight. It was made from logs with a small amount of stone cladding. It had a raised deck all the way around it with huge glass doors leading out onto it, the upper floor clearly the main floor of the house. There was a double garage underneath, the bottom floor being a walk-out basement that was built into the embankment that the house was sitting on. She noticed Vaughn’s truck sitting on the lawn across from the open garage and pulled up next to it. She turned off her ignition before raising her hand to her mouth in disbelief. “No way.” She said out loud as she turned around in her seat to look at the house through the rear window, having to blink a couple of times to convince herself

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that this was real. Suddenly someone opened her door. She jumped in surprise before turning around to see Vaughn, a big grin on his face. His eyes were covered with a pair of dark wayfarer sunglasses that suited him perfectly. “Hey you.” He said as she leant back in her seat with relief. “My God, you scared the life out of me.” She noticed he was wearing his blue Wranglers again with a red plaid shirt, the sleeves rolled up around his elbows. “Sorry. You actually gonna jump on down so I can show ya this place?” He asked offering her his hand. “Yeah, of course.” She said as she took his hand and slid down from the seat. “You don’t fail to amaze, do you?” She asked as she walked with him up the decked steps, taking hold of the railing as she took the place in. “Nope. What d’ya think?” He smiled down at her as she took her time. “Stunning. I can’t think of any other words.” She answered as she reached him. “Thanks. It ain’t the only surprise I got for you.” He said as he stopped. She followed his gaze and looked over the railing towards his hip roof barn, one of its doors slightly open. “What’s in there?” Louise said as she followed his gaze across the yard. “Well.” He started before turning to face her. “That’s the other surprise.” “Really? I don’t know if I can take any more surprises at the minute, I may have a stroke.” “I’m sure you’ll be just fine. C’mon.” He started to walk over to a set of open glass doors that lead into the house. They stepped inside, Louise’s eyes growing wide in astonishment as she took off her sunglasses. “Wow.”

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“Wanna coffee? You’re startin’ to look like you need one.” He chuckled as he made his way into the kitchen, throwing his sunglasses on the counter top as he flicked on the coffee machine. He leant on the island in the middle with his arms crossed over his chest. “Yeah, I think I should.” She said as she made her way towards him, looking up into the vaulted ceiling as she did. “Speechless huh?” He laughed as he moved himself from the counter and placed his arms around her waist, pulling her to him. Her gaze focused on him as she placed her hands on the tops of his arms. “Pretty much.” She replied with a smile as he lightly kissed her on the lips before pulling back. “Ah, it’s the hair. I like it.” He took his right arm from around her waist and ran his fingers through her hair, pushing it back behind her ear with a grin. “Thank you.” She said shyly. “I haven’t straightened it in ages. Don’t take this the wrong way, but I love you in color.” He let go of her as he moved to the coffee machine and pulled out two mugs from the cabinet just above it. “How could I take that the wrong way?” “I don’t know.” She said as she leant on the counter top of the island. “It’s nice to see you not wearing black. Apart from your hat of course.” “So, not even that black tee I wore first day I met you?” He stirred the contents of the mugs before passing her one. “You know what I mean. All black. I’m digging myself a hole.” She gave him one of her sweetest smiles as she felt a blush heat her cheeks.

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“I’m likin’ wearin’ this stuff again. Just took me to meet you to dig it out. If ya know what I’m gettin’ at.” He said it as he took a sip. “Slip your boots off an’ I’ll show ya the rest o’ this place.” “Sure thing.” She said as she reached down and pulled her boots off, one by one, Vaughn stepping on the heels of his and pulling his feet out with ease. “What’s through there?” She pointed down the corridor that disappeared out the back of the kitchen. “Two guest rooms, each with an en suite. Go ahead, take a peek.” He said as she started to move, both of them leaving their mugs on the island top.

*

*

*

Vaughn showed her both of the spare rooms quickly, her peering into the bathrooms for a second or two as he watched her with a smile. He still couldn’t believe that he’d actually asked her to come over. The last time that he had had a girl in the house had been the last day Cindy had spent there, and even when they were supposedly on good terms, the mood in the house was never as light and loving as it was at this exact minute. “They’re absolutely beautiful. You really have an eye for this stuff don’t you?” Louise said as she turned back to walk through the kitchen again. “I like it ‘cause it’s basic. Never been one for that contemporary stuff.” He joined her in walking to the kitchen, both of them picking up their mugs of coffee. Louise took a sip as she pointed towards the front of the house. “This way?” “Go ahead.” He said it with a smile before they both made their way into the family room, him letting her take the lead.

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“Oh. My. God.” “Nice huh?” He smiled, leaning against the stone chimney breast as she walked into the biggest room in the house. The sunlight was steaming in through the windows and lighting up every inch, the wood almost dazzling. Vaughn had to admit that it was a beautiful design, even if he sometimes hated the vastness now and again. He also hated how cold it felt sometimes when he was alone, especially in the evening. “It’s more beautiful than anything I’ve ever seen before. Ever.” She turned back to see him, amazement in her face and he couldn’t help but move over to her and take her in this arms. He spun her around so her back was to his chest, left arm around her waist again holding her tight to him. “Those doors there.” He pointed to the double doors at the end of the room, coffee mug still in hand. “They open right back. So do those ones and those ones.” He turned her and pointed to the right and left. She turned her head so that she could look at him. “I bet this is amazing in the summer.” “Pretty much.” He replied, knowing it wasn’t a question but answering all the same. He smiled at her before looking out of the glass doors, thinking how warm it felt. It suddenly hit him that it wasn’t just warm because the sun was streaming in. It was warm because Louise was there with him. “Upstairs?” She said as he released her, both of them placing their mugs on the coffee table in the family room before he followed her towards the stairs that they had passed on the way in. They climbed the stairs, Vaughn a couple of steps behind

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Louise as they entered the open loft that looked down into the dining and living rooms. “So that’s what this bit is.” Louise said as she looked over the railing before turning her gaze to the long windows that were on the wall directly in front of her. “That view is amazing.” “Should see it when it’s misty in the mornin’. Now that’s amazin’.” He waited for her to finish staring out across the land. “I don’t mean to be rude, but, that land isn’t -” “Sure is. All mine.” He gave her a smile. “There’s one door over there you’ve missed.” Nodding over to the half open door that lead to the master bedroom. “Bedroom?” She asked. “Take a look.” He almost whispered as he watched her open the door and followed behind her. “Bathroom to the left an’ closet on the right.” He said as she peered into each of the doors in the small walk way. “That bathroom is incredible.” She said as she looked back at him before carrying on into the bedroom. “I know. Jet tub is mind-blowin’.” He said with a chuckle, thinking that he hadn’t actually had a bath in a long time. Showers had seemed easier these last few months. He leant against the wall that separated the bathroom and the bedroom, crossing his arms as he watched her with a smile, waiting for her approval and knowing he’d get it. He had spent a good hour that morning making sure this room in particular was perfect, and seeing the look on Louise’s face, he knew that it had been an hour well spent. “I’m speechless.” She said as she walked into the centre of the room.

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He watched her as she looked over at the bed noticing the sheets hardly had a crease in them and the throw pillows were aligned neatly at the head of the bed. He had to admit, if the was going to do something, he’d do it right. There was a beautiful brown faux fur throw on the bottom, the bed itself being made of logs that had been colored with a dark stain, it looking like something out of a designer magazine. “Come an’ take a look at this.” Vaughn said as he moved to the double doors, the light sheer curtains on either side blowing into the room slightly as he opened them to expose a balcony. He motioned for Louise to follow him outside. “How the hell do you get out of bed in the morning?” She asked as she took in the view of a lake not too far away. “That’s the thing. If I wanna see the lake, I have to.” He smiled before pulling her to him again, left arm around her waist. She placed her right hand just above his elbow, while his cupped the back of her head, his fingers in her hair again. “You’re so beautiful.” He said as he took in her face, smiling at the way her eyes lit up with passionate and questioning flashes. “An’ I’m not just sayin’ it.” “Vaughn.” A blush rose to her cheeks and she tried to escape his gaze. He took in her entire face and the way her hair moved gently in the breeze before he couldn’t resist her any longer and slowly leant in to touch her lips with his. She melted into him as he kissed her, so gently it almost felt like a breeze. He didn’t hold her too tight, but instead lovingly, his left hand not moving from her waist and his right still lightly entangled in her hair. His tongue was soft and tender, not wanting to hurry but instead wanting to take in as much of her as possible without the hunger of the last few times they’d kissed.

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As he gently broke away he placed his forehead on hers, it lifting his hat slightly. They each kept their eyes closed, Vaughn thinking in his mind whether he should tell her he was falling in love with her or not, but pulling away when he decided it was far too soon. “You ready for that other surprise?” He asked as he returned his eyes to hers. “Right now?” She said, it apparent that she liked it exactly where she was. “C’mon, you’ll really love this.” He smiled before taking her hand in his and leading her back downstairs, leaving the double doors to the balcony open.

*

*

*

They both put their boots back on, Vaughn having picked up the mugs and rinsed them out in the sink first. They had made their way outside, Louise following him over to the hip roof barn, still taking in the beauty of his home and land surrounding it. As they got closer, and Louise a little too curious, Vaughn ran around the back of her and covered her eyes with his hands. “Vaughn. What are you doing?” She said with a laugh as she covered his hands with hers. “I don’t want you to see until I say. Keep your eyes covered, I’ll be back in a second.” And with that he let go of her. She replaced his hands with hers as she heard the swing of the barns doors, each of them clattering against the wood on each side. “Vaughn!” She exclaimed she felt his hands creep around her waist, making her jump. He placed his hands back over her eyes as he moved behind her again, walking forward a couple more steps.

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“Ready? Open your eyes.” Louise slowly opened her eyes as he took his hand away, gasping as the sunlight hit the stunning paintwork of eight classic muscle cars, her knees going weak. “Wow. You okay?” “I think.” She righted herself before turning back to him with an almost horrified look on her face. “These are not all yours?” She asked. “Sure are. Wanna take one for a spin?” He smiled that irresistible smile of his and she couldn’t help but shake her head in disbelief. “What?” “You are something else mister.” She smiled as she looked back over to the gleaming hoard of horsepower. “It’s nice to hear ya say that to me for a change.” He laughed as he made his way into the barn, his torso disappearing. “I think there’s a nice LS6 waitin’ to see you.” “How the? I just. What?” She was flabbergasted as she walked over to where he was, the beautiful paintwork of a pristine 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle coming into view. “I think someone has some explaining to do.” She looked across the faultless hood as she stood at the front of the car and ran her hand along the front fender. “How ‘bout you hop in the driver’s seat.” He said as he took a couple of steps towards her. “I’ll explain everythin’ later. I promise.” He brushed past her and walked to the rear of the car, sliding open the door that was directly behind it. She watched as he walked back down the opposite side of the Chevelle, clicking open the door. “She ain’t gonna drive herself.” “This is too unreal.” She said as she clicked open her door and climbed in. The door shut with a click behind her as she placed her hands on the wheel, taking in the immaculate black interior. “You really want me to drive her? Seriously?” She

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looked back at Vaughn who was now in the passenger seat watching her with a smile. “Of course. Keys’re up in the visor.” He said with a nod. “An’ I’m gonna get my belt on.” He chuckled as she gave him a funny look. “You’ve never been in a car with me driving before.” She said as she took down the keys and placed them in the ignition. “Yeah, but you’ve been in the car when I’ve been drivin’ an’ actually enjoyed it. That’s why I’m puttin’ my belt on.” She laughed as he said it, meeting his eyes with hers as she bit her bottom lip playfully and turned the key. “Awesome!” She shouted excitedly before she shifted the gear into reverse and backed out of the barn, foot hardly pressing the gas as she did. The power was surprising, though she should have expected it from a 7.4 litre engine. “I must tell ya somethin’ ‘bout this car.” Vaughn said as she swung the front end around so she faced down the drive towards the highway. “What’s that?” She shifted into drive and rolled the car towards the highway slowly, looking back at him as she did. “I haven’t driven her for quite a while.” “Well, isn’t that what I’m here to do?” She said as the reached the end of his drive, covering the brake as she checked to the left and then the right for traffic, planning on heading left and into town. “Louise?” He asked, her replying with a devilish smile before placing her foot gently on the gas to get traction on the road before pinning her foot to the floor. The rear end of the Chevelle skidded out to the right as she joined the highway, the tires smoking and leaving huge black marks along the tarmac as she straightened up, the V8 roaring into town.

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“Woohoo!” She exclaimed with a laugh, Vaughn looking at her wide eyed. “An’ I thought I was mad.” He said glancing over to her but trying to keep his eyes on the road. “I have always wanted to drive one of these.” Her devilish and fiery smile was still radiating in her eyes, and if eyes could change color, hers would be the brightest red. “Hold on.” “I’m tryin’. Just don’t kill us, okay?” He said with a laugh as he shifted in his seat. “I’m not that reckless.” She said, the tail kicking out left as she overtook four cars. She pulled back into the right lane, the Chevelle swinging back to the right and just scraping the dirt at the side of the highway. She pulled effortlessly on the wheel to straighten the historic piece of American muscle back into a straight line, the smile not moving from her lips. “Thank God there ain’t much traffic huh?” He said, almost relieved that the intersection they were coming to was pretty dead. “Yep. Now I’m gonna show you real driving.” She slowed down slightly as she took the right merger before flicking the wheel to the left and pressing hard on the gas. The rear of the Chevelle rolled into an impressive slide, just missing one car by a hair as Louise kept the car moving sideways, doubling back on herself. She feathered the gas as they hit the highway back to Vaughn’s, aligning the car and pressing the pedal to the floor again. She laughed as she heard the other drivers beep their horns, the rear tires kicking out smoke as she scorched more black streaks into the road. “Holy shit Louise! ” Vaughn cried as he shifted again, her seeing the panic rising in his eyes as she glanced over at him.

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“What?” She laughed as she slowed down so that she could gently take the bend back onto the drive leading back to his house. “I see someone learnt to drive by watchin’ ‘The Dukes o’ Hazard’.” He said as she crawled back up towards the barn, not wanting to chip the incredible paintwork. “What car nut hasn’t? That and I’ve always been a bit of a wild child at heart . Never had many girlfriends.” She smiled as she swung the car back into the barn where it had stood not ten minutes earlier, turning off the ignition when they had come to a stop. She turned in her seat to look at Vaughn, laughing when she saw that he had his hat half over his eyes, his right hand spread out on the dash. “You, little lady, are banned from takin’ out any more cars today.” He said as he sat up straight and tipped his Stetson back so that he could see her. “Ooo-ee.” He breathed. “I thought you liked to drive like a loony?” She said with a laugh as he smiled at her, opening his door so that he could step out. “Yes, I like to drive like a loony, but I don’t necessarily like bein’ driven by a loony.” He shut the sliding door again, and locked it in place before returning to the front of the car. “Sorry if I scared you.” She tried to sound sympathetic as she stepped out of the car. “I wasn’t scared, just shocked, is all.” He walked over to her as she stood herself against the barn wall, taking in the whole of the muscle car and the ride she’d just taken it for. He leant besides her and lightly gave her an elbow. “Wanna take a peek at the rest?” “Definitely.”

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*

*

*

The cars were obviously in order by year of manufacture, and as Vaughn watched Louise stop in front of the first car in the row, he could help but smile. He had never known a woman drive like she did, and he had to admit that she had even scared him a little when she had punched it into a slide at the intersection. Heck, it only makes me want her more. A tingle ran down his spine making him shiver slightly, and he was glad Louise was a little preoccupied by the 88. “Wow.” She said as she stood and admired the 1949 Oldsmobile. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen the very first eighty eight except for on the internet.” “Most people haven’t, hence the reason why I have one. Been doin’ some tweakin’, so haven’t taken her out in a while either. Actually, I was under the hood yesterday.” He said as she watched her circle the car, standing back with his hands tucked into his front pockets on his jeans. His thumbs were through his belt loops either side of his buckle that was slightly covered by his shirt. “She must be worth a fortune. I saw a nineteen fifty Rocket eighty eight for sale on the internet for $60,000 so lord knows what this is worth. How the heck do you afford these cars? This is a garage I’ve only ever dreamed about. Well, barn.” She said it with a frown as she made her way back to the front of the car, there not being one smudge on the paintwork at all. “I wanna talk to you ‘bout that stuff over a coffee a little later. Kinda wanna save it ‘cause it’s a big thing.” He said with honesty in his eyes, Louise smiling at him before making her way to the next car. “Next you’ll be telling me you’re a millionaire or something.” She chuckled as he watched her run her hand along the side of the blue 1965 Ford Mustang GT with

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white Shelby stripes. She turned to face him as he watched her with raised eyebrows. “Vaughn?” He shook his head lightly as he walked to where she was now standing, just by the driver’s door of the Mustang. “Why ruin a surprise I was gonna surprise you with, huh? An’ just so ya know, I ain’t just a great hand in the saddle, if ya know what I mean. Had a flair for fixin’ up cars since a young age, so it’s just somethin’ I do in my spare time.” “I know there’s something I’m missing here, but I believe you.” She smiled as she looked back down at the Mustang. “Two eight nine, but not the Shelby. Nice to finally see someone who doesn’t just want a pony for the Shelby badge and the fastback.” “You see too many fastbacks ‘round, an’ I liked the flat trunk . Somethin’ ‘bout it that appealed to me.” He said as he watched her. “I’ve always liked the fact that you can sit on the trunk.” She teased as she walked backwards towards the next car in the row. “Well, there’s that too. Not that I’d be the one doin’ the sittin’.” He followed her with a telling grin on his face, knowing exactly what she was thinking when she had said it. He also knew that she’d be wanting to ask a lot of question when they got back to the house. He could see that she was ready to pop with them already, but wanted to save them for the right time. “1967 Pontiac GTO, sports coupe with, at a guess, if I know you as well as I think I do.” She looked up from the beautiful black car, meeting his eyes. “The four hundred?” “Amazin’. But these next two will really test you. Go on.” He said it with a wide grin, her moving over to the rarest of them all. The 1969 orange Chevrolet Camaro.

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“Holy crap Vaughn!” She exclaimed as she bent down and ran her finger along the chrome badge on the front fender is disbelief. “This is the ZL-1. Jesus Christ.” She stood back up slowly, still admiring the car. “You have nearly three quarters of a million dollars sitting right here.” She laughed with astonishment. “I’m touching three quarters of a million dollars.” She shook her head before turning around to look at him, a chuckle catching in his throat. “What? This isn’t funny, this is the most awesome of awesomes.” “It’s genuine too. Number sixty one if you were wonderin’.” He watched her take a few steps towards him, not taking his eyes from hers. “So, you’re telling me, that this car right here is a genuine, all original sheet metal work, numbers matching, original color and four two seven engine.” He watched as she took a breath. “The same four two seven engine that was Chevy’s first aluminium block and that weighted the same as the three two seven and ran low thirteen’s on the quarter, mid eleven’s with slicks and a quick tune. Because if it is, someone either has a very large green secret or had a very large green secret.” She was only inches away from him. He didn’t move but rather s tood his ground. “What does it matter?” He said as he moved his right hand from his front pocket and put it around her waist, tugging her to him and catching her off guard. “It doesn’t. But an explanation would be nice.” He knew her heart was racing again as he didn’t move his eyes from hers. His teasing flares obviously accounted for her breath growing slightly shallower as he held her. He moved his face a little closer to hers, his eyes still focused on her, the brim of his Stetson just above her head. “I’ll explain everythin’, I promise.” He moved his head back slightly, seeing the desire flash across her eyes, and he knew that right at this minute in time, she wasn’t thinking about the car or the fact that there was a lot

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of money involved. “Someone’s a little flushed.” He added with a suggestive half smile as he brushed her hair from her face with his left hand. He felt her go slightly weak at his touch and smiled as he watched her eyes glaze over, if only for a second. “No I’m not.” She whispered, not quite able to say the words properly. “Yes, honey, you are.” He said it softly, realising that he’d called her honey for the first time. It made his heart warm. She looked away. “Well, this is what you do to me, so I blame you.” She smiled as she looked back at him. “Ditto.” He replied before stroking her hair again. “Few more cars down there.” He tilted his head to the right. “Okay. Then it’s time for a cup of coffee. Make mine a strong one.” She smiled as he let her go. He watched her gaze at the car in astonishment as she made her way to the white car with red and blue accent stripes and a blue hood. “This one’s gonna test you real good.” He smiled as he followed her again, moving slightly further away so that he could lean against the wall of the barn in front of the car. “Sure is. I’ve never really read up on the AMC’s, but this is one of their first muscle cars, I know that. 1970 Rebel Machine.” She said as she knelt down next to the front wheel and rubbed her hand along the fender. She moved around to the rear of the car and back up the other side, checking out the interior. “That’s almost all I know, apart from they came out of the factory with a three ninety.” “Impressive. I see you’ve done your homework little lady.” He smiled. “An’ I know ya know ‘bout the baby next to you.”

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“Of course. What muscle fan doesn’t?” She said as she ran a finger along the curve of the Chevelle before standing in front of it again and admiring everything about it. “LS6 four five four. One of the quickest muscle cars ever built, not to mention the fact that it actually produced well over five hundred horses instead of the four fifty they said it had, and would pull off thirteen’s on the quarter mile back in the nineteen seventies.” She smiled back at him as he moved to her side. “It has high compression pistons and rectangular port cylinder heads, along with a solid lifter camshaft. That is, if you haven’t stripped it and upgraded, which I doubt you would have.” He raised his eyebrows and she chuckled before continuing. “ZL-1’s and L88’s were the rarest of that year, but hardly any of those engines were actually placed in production cars, a bit like your Camaro. Most of them being used to race.” “Wow. You sure you ain’t a guy?” Vaughn laughed, her taking a swipe at him and whacking on the top of his arm playfully with a smile. “Hey.” “I’m sure you’d know if I was a man.” She said with a laugh. “And for that I’m not giving in to you for the rest of the day.” She smiled as she turned her back and walked to the next car, standing directly in front of it with a grin. “Mean.” He said as he moved to stand behind her again, a good few feet away. “But I’m sure you can’t resist me for that long.” He gave her a wink as she looked over her shoulder at him, his arms being loosely crossed over his chest. “Try me sweetheart. I can be evil when I’m in the mood.” She gave him a wink back along with a tantalising smile that lit up her eyes. “Oh, trust me, I will. An’ I can be pretty persuasive when I wanna be.” He was more than tempted to march over to her and push her onto the hood of his GTX, a craving rushing through him like it never had before. It took all of his will power just to stay where he was.

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“1970 Plymouth GTX. Hemi.” She mentioned, looking over the plum colored car with its black hood and light weight black spoiler on the trunk. “Don’t see many of these either, more likely to see the Road Runner.” She placed her fingertips of her left hand on the hood of the car before starting to walk to the very last car in the barn. Vaughn watched her hand glide over the GTX’s paint with a mesmerised gaze before she landed in front of the last car like she had the GTX. “What’s your most favourite thing ‘bout American muscle?” He asked her. She turned around as he slowly made his way over to her, backing her up against the front of the black and gold 1978 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am, his left knee between hers. He put his right foot up into the niche on the shovel nose front end where the headlights sat. His right elbow rested on his knee, forcing her to place her hands behind her to help her balance. “I’ll tell if you do.” She said cheekily as he leant into her. “Okay.” He placed his left hand behind her right, leaning into her even more. She was almost lying flat, her weight on her elbows. “Well?” She asked as he got even closer to her. “Other than flesh an’ blood, there’s no other thing in this world that is as sexy as a muscle car.” He didn’t take his eyes from hers as he said it, knowing that his tone would be enough to make her go weak. He saw her pupils grow bigger as he kept his focus on her. He was right. “Too true.” Louise struggled to say. Vaughn put his weight onto his left hand, moving his right to Louise’s waist. He only took his eyes off hers to glance down as his hand moved under the material of her top and touched her skin, feeling her muscles flinch as he did. “The curves an’ lines o’ the bodywork bein’ more than irresistible, whether it’s a car.” He moved his

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gaze back to hers and saw that her breathing was becoming stammered and erratic. “Or a beautiful woman.” “You are so tempting.” She smiled as his hand moved up her ribcage, making her shiver. He felt the goose bumps rising on her flesh as he was only inches away from lying on top of her. “Good.” He smiled as he leant down to kiss her, just as she raised her right hand and placed her index finger across his lips, eyes playful. “But not good enough, cowboy.” She said as she gently pushed him with her finger, his hand sliding from under her t-shirt as he righted himself, Louise following suit. “I think I need a cup o’ coffee while I t ry to figure out how to break you.” He said with a disbelieving smile as she moved her finger. She had made him a little more than crazy, and he knew that she could see it in his eyes. “Yep. Come on mister.” She pushed herself off the hood of the Firebird, making him take a step back before heading out of the barn doors. “And you best let me get under the hood of one of those cars.”

*

*

*

They both made their way back to the house, Vaughn telling Louise to sit outside in the gazebo while he made them both a cup of coffee. He had arrived five minutes later with two huge mugs and sat himself down next to her. He spun his chair around to match hers, her having picked the seat furthest away from the house so that she could look out over the land.

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“I can’t believe it’s nearly four.” He said as he handed her the mug. She gave him a smile as she wrapped both of her hands around it. “Really? I would never have guessed. Other than the sun being that intense.” She took a sip of coffee, him smiling as he imagined how sweet she’d look in gloves and a scarf in the same position. “So, you ready to tell me then?” She said as she placed her mug on the table and bought her right foot up onto the seat. “Actually, mind if I ask a question first.” He looked down at her wrist that normally held her watch. “Of course not. Go ahead.” “I’ve not seen you wear your watch in a while, is all.” He saw a raw sadness in her eyes and wished he hadn’t mentioned anything. “Honestly?” He nodded and she continued. “My ex bought it for me as a present a few years back. I just don’t want to wear it anymore.” “Makes sense. I’m sorry.” “That’s okay. I’ll get another one. I’m kind of liking not wearing it though.” She smiled and he knew she was being genuine. “Now. Tell me about you and your other surprise.” “Right, where do I start?” He asked himself as he leant back in his chair, putting his feet up on the railing and crossing his ankles. “When I was a baby my real dad, Jayson Jefferson, left my mom an’ moved to Texas. The guy that bought me up was an amazin’ man, an’ he adopted me. My last name is his.” He looked over at her and could see she was listening and taking it in. He was relieved she was. “Anyhow, my momma’s Cheyenne an’ she’s the nicest woman you could ever meet. Step dad’s called Aaron. Aaron has a ranch up in Moundville, just south o’ Tuscaloosa, an’ taught me pretty much everythin’ I know. I moved down to Elba in my early

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twenties, goin’ where there was work an’ it seemin’ that people down here needed guys that could break in horses. Aaron said he was proud o’ me for gettin’ out on my own an’ was the one that said I should try my hand at the pro rodeos.” He glanced back at Louise. “Said I was one o’ the best breakers he’d seen an’ I should get into bronc ridin’.” He moved his eyes back to the land stretching out in front of them. “So I did.” He took a sip of his coffee and Louise did the same. “So it was Aaron that got you into the rodeos then? How come you quit?” She asked, still hugging her leg with her right arm. “Yeah, an’ I’m glad he did. It wasn’t really my choice to quit, it was someone else’s, but that comes later in the story.” He smiled, but knew she could see the pain and sadness in his eyes. “Okay, sorry. Carry on.” She lit up her eyes with a smile and the sad look in his faded. “I will.” He chuckled before carrying on. “I had come second in the first bareback, an’ that’s when I got this buckle from my biological dad. It took a long time for me to get up the courage to wear it. I was only young an’ thought he’d done it to spite me. Anyhow, ‘real dad’ died when I was twenty four an’ he left everythin’ to me, which was a real big surprise. Turns out he’d never had any more kids an’ didn’t have a wife. I had to take time out to go on over to Texas an’ sort things out.” He took his feet down from the railing and moved to face Louise, leaning his elbows on his knees as he looked into her eyes. “He had a huge amount o’ savin’s an’ a very successful company over in Texas. He restored cars an’ built hot rods. I managed to sell the company an’ make a fortune, payin’ off momma’s house an’ my own before buyin’ a load o’ land. Jerry had his eye on this patch before I bought it. It was one hundred an’ thirty acres. We got talkin’ an’ I sold him one hundred, leavin’ me with

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the thirty that I have now.” He paused as he took a deep breath and watched her, almost as if looking for a change in her. “I don’t mean to be rude, and tell me it’s none of my business if you want to, but how much in total?” She asked as she picked up her coffee again and held it in both hands. Her blue eyes looked more supportive than excited, and he couldn’t help but smile again. “I’m gonna tell you ‘cause I want you to know.” He took a deep breath. “Right now, in total, I have ‘round seven point three, I think. Seven somethin’ anyhow.” She almost choked on her coffee as he said it, his brown eyes still on hers and searching for a change again. “Million?” She asked. “Yeah. Told ya I had some surprises for you today.” He leaned back and rubbed his neck with his right hand, almost feeling guilty. “Camaro being the first car you bought?” She asked, and he was surprised she didn’t want to know more about his bank account, but glad the news hadn’t changed her one bit. “How did you know? An’ yeah, it was. Charger I’d been fixin’ up for a couple o’ years before.” He smiled again, not believing how calm she had been. It just didn’t seem to bother her at all. The cars seemed to be closer to the front of her mind than anything else. “At your other house. So, how come you built this place? Pretty big for a lone cowboy.” She asked as she looked back over to the log house that towered above them. “Thing is, I wasn’t alone at the time.” He moved from his seat and leant his elbows on the railing as the sun lay low in the sky. He heard Louise put her mug

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down and take a couple of steps over to where he was. His arm instinctively moved around her shoulder as hers found his waist. “Thursday.” Was all she said. He glanced back at her with a frown. “Huh?” “I’m going to come back on Thursday night, and I’ll bring a pizza, and you are going to tell me all about it, because I know you can’t right now.” She said it wish a smile, but he wasn’t able to meet her gaze and instead looked down at his boots. “And I know that you want to.” “You know I do.” He said with a sigh before turning to face her, the late afternoon sun lighting up her face in a beautiful orangey glow. “I hate being vulnerable.” “Who doesn’t?” She said as he felt her hand on the back of his neck, the light touch sending a shiver down his spine and forcing him to close his eyes. “I spent the best part of my twenties being vulnerable.” She leant on her tip toes and pulled him down to her, kissing him lightly on his lips. “But I’d relive it so that you knew everything.” His eyes searched hers as she let go of his neck and slid her hand down to the top of his arm. “You would?” “Of course I would. That’s why I know you would.” She said it with one of the most stunning smiles he’d ever seen. “Now, are you joining me in sitting back down?” “Yeah. An’ I’ll let you sit on my knee.” He was smiling again as he pulled her onto his knee. “Now, what bought you to Elba? Lord knows you ain’t lived here you’re whole life.”

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“Mum and dad actually moved down to the outskirts of Mobile when I was a teen. They had been fed up of Britain for a while and found a business over here which they bought and eventually made a good living out of it. Me being a kid, I hated leaving my friends, but I realised just how crap Britain really was when I started high school over here and started making new ones. And I loved the fact that I could take driver’s ed and race around in a truck before the guys in Britain had even thought about driving.” She shifted slightly so she could reach her coffee and took a sip before carrying on. “Anyway, I got to twenty one and started going out into the local honky tonks and bars and got myself into a little bit of a mess with this one guy, who I actually moved up here with. His idea not mine.” She hesitated slightly, glancing at Vaughn and seeing understanding in his face. “I met Shelby out of chance. She was laid up in hospital so I took her job at the drug store. When she got back to work, Bryan thought we were too much of a match to get rid of either of us. Turns out she’s the best friend I ever had.” Louise obviously didn’t want to open up fully until Thursday, and Vaughn realised that it was going to be a very emotional night for both of them. “You okay?” He asked as she looked across the land again, Vaughn slowly following her gaze. “I know, I’ve gotta close ‘em. Sun will be settin’ in a little less than an hour.” He looked back at her. “You wanna stay here? I’ll only be a couple o’ minutes at most.” “Alright then. I’ll go rinse these mugs out if you want.” Louise stood so that he could make his way down to the barn. “Don’t worry ‘bout them, I’m capable.” He chuckled. “I know where the sink is.” She said as she picked up his empty mug and walked towards the doors. “See you in a minute.”

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“I’ll fix us somethin’ to eat if ya want, so go an’ make yourself comfortable.” He raced down the steps before looking back up at her as she disappeared through the doors. He quickly shut and locked the barn doors before jogging back to the house and up the steps, knowing that she would be listening for his heels on the wooden deck, and it bringing a smile to his lips. He entered through the doors that were still open, shutting them behind him as his gaze focused on her by the kitchen island. “See. All clean.” She smiled sarcastically. “Very funny. D’ya want me to fix some food or somethin’?” He asked as he made his way over to her. “I’d love you to, but I think I best get going.” He could tell she didn’t want to, but it was more of a must. “You sure?” “Yeah. Work tomorrow. I’m off Friday though, so I’m all yours for as long as you want me on Thursday.” A grin spread across her face as she moved towards him and put her arms around his waist. “Don’t tempt me. An’ I’ll make sure I have Friday off too.” He said it as he placed his arms around her and pulled her to him in a hug, his chin on top of her head that was buried into his chest. “Good.” She said as she pulled away before kissing him lightly on the cheek. “I’ll see you on Thursday.”

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Leather & Lace

It was 5:40pm on Thursday and Louise had just arrived back at her truck after hunting around for pizza in the grocery store. She had found three that she couldn’t decide between, so she bought all of them. She was going to go straight to Vaughn’s after work, but sitting in her pickup truck she knew that he wouldn’t be home just yet. She was wearing her new boots again, but this time she was wear her dark blue skinny jeans so that the boots were over the top. She was wearing a beige top with rolled sleeves at the elbows and buttons that ran down the front, the only two that could be undone being undone. She had covered up with her brown leather jacket, the color almost matching her boots. Shelby had nearly fainted when she had walked out of the ‘Staff Only’ door. She had told her that if he didn’t want her tonight then he never will, Louise laughing at her so hard she thought she was going to run out of air and pass out. The last few days at the store had been rather fun, and the customers had been flowing through the door too, Bryan having to be called onto the floor every now again because the girls were over whelmed. Shelby had been her usual self, wanting to know everything about everything, and Louise knew that she’d have to give in at some point else she wouldn’t stop. She did leave out the fact that he was very well off though, knowing that, one, Shelby wouldn’t believe her, and two, she’d being almost manic. Shelby had told Louise that she had been seeing Dale the odd night and that they were getting along famously. She said that he treated her like a lady and she thought this whole ‘fling’ was more than just fun, Louise telling her just to take it easy and see how it goes.

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As she sat in the truck and flicked on the stereo, she pulled out her phone ready to text Vaughn and tell him that she was on her way, when suddenly her phone buzzed, showing up ‘One missed call’. She clicked on the ‘View’ button with a frown, swearing that she hadn’t heard it even though it had been in her pocket the whole time. All the information said was ‘No caller ID’. Strange. She wondered whether it was Matt, pushing the thought to one side knowing that he was busy with the rodeo for the next few days. She threw her phone onto the seat beside her and threw her truck into gear. What the heck. I can wait if he’s not there. She thought to herself as she pulled out of the parking lot and made her way to Vaughn’s, too preoccupied with the night ahead to notice the pickup truck pull out of the parking lot just behind her, staying two cars back. Five minutes later she had pulled up the dirt driveway, slowing down a little so that the stones didn’t flick up and damage the paintwork on her truck . As she pulled up to the house, she parked perfectly in one of the spaces in front of the garage and turned off the ignition, just as Vaughn speedily arrived in his filthy pickup truck, pulling up to the right of her. She pushed open her door as she watched him switch off the engine, smiling to herself at how much this man had changed in the last few weeks she had known him. She gathered everything off the bench seat with a smile, tucking her phone back into her pocket before she jumped down. She kicked her door shut and met him by the steps, splashes and smears of mud all over his black jeans, his boots covered. He was wearing a rather clean black t-shirt, his brown plaid shirt thrown over his shoulder, it obviously covered too. His black Stetson had a good few flicks of dirt along the front, but as she looked up at him with a smile, she knew he didn’t mind being filthy.

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“I don’t think I can eat three.” He smiled as she approached, pizzas in her arms and bag thrown over her shoulder. “Well, I liked the look of all of them, and I didn’t think there was any harm in buying them all.” She looked down at the stack. “And I said I didn’t need a bag if you were wondering.” “I wasn’t wonderin’ anythin’.” He started to walk up the steps, her following him. “Oh, an’ I’m gonna need to get a shower too, ya don’t mind if I disappear for fifteen do you?” She watched him unlock the door, thinking just how good he looked even when he was covered in mud. “Of course not.” He turned back to look at her as they entered the house. “An’ you look. Wow.” He shook his head slightly before correcting himself. “I mean, amazin’.” She giggled as she placed the stack of pizzas on the island in the kitchen, dropping her bag to the floor. “Thanks.” She spun around as she felt his presence. “And you’re filthy.” “Yeah, Jerry’s kept me busy all day ‘cause I was leavin’ a little early.” “So he thought he’d punish you with dirty jobs?” She asked as he came closer still. “Pretty much.” He said as he backed her up against the island. Her heart thumped in her chest as he boxed her in. “Well, I’m all clean and I really don’t want to get mud down me. I like this top, and these boots are new.” She said with a smile. “You afraid of a little dirt? ‘Cause I’m sure you ain’t.” “If I’m going to be here most of the night, I’d rather stay clean thanks.” Her smile lit up her blue eyes and watched as he moved a little closer.

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“I can guarantee that you’ll struggle.” He teased before moving to slip off his boots, putting them out of her way across the other side of the kitchen. “I’m goin’ for a shower.” And with that he dashed towards the stairs, Louise watching him as he rounded the corner. She heard him take two at a time before the shower started to run, a light smile creeping across her lips again. She made her way over to the oven and flicked it on so that it could warm up to temperature before scouring the cupboards for a couple of mugs. She pulled two down when she found them and, making sure everything was in place, flicked on the coffee machine. She attempted to find the light switch and after having no luck, gave up, feeling a little silly as the sun was hanging low in the sky and the kitchen was a little dim. Once the coffee machine was finished she made her and Vaughn a cup each, it just occurring to her that the shower had stopped running. She smiled as she moved the pizzas over to where the oven was, still not sure which one it was that she fancied, and deciding to wait until Vaughn was back downstairs before asking him. She had just taken off her jacket and placed it on the floor over her bag when all of a sudden the lights in the kitchen came on making her jump. She turned around to see Vaughn, dressed in dark blue jeans and a dark green and white wide-checked plaid shirt that was rolled up just above his elbows. His shirt was undone a little more than usual, exposing a white t-shirt underneath. It was tucked into his jeans as it was every day, exposing his buckle, and he’d also put on a rather clean pair of black boots.

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He was playing with something in his hands, his head bowed so that Louise couldn’t see his face, his Stetson being in the way again and now clean from the flecks of dirt. She frowned slightly as she watched him. “What’s that?” She asked as he threw it onto the island and made his way over to her, him lifting his head again with a smile. “That.” He pointed to the square device. “Has all the light switches for the whole house.” “No wonder I couldn’t find one on the wall. I was thinking I was going a little mad.” She laughed as he slowly backed her into the corner of the kitchen, his brown eyes catching hers. “I thought you didn’t like all that contemporary stuff?” “I don’t. It’s annoyin’ actually.” He said as he placed his hands on the counter top either side of her. “Clean enough?” “Definitely.” She smiled as she took in a deep breath, the light scent of his lime shower gel making her tingle a little. “Now, which pizza do you want?” She moved her eyes from his with a giggle, moving him out the way so she could get to the pizzas. “Tell you what. Stick ‘em all in an’ we’ll try each one.” “You sure? I can usually only eat about three slices, so unless you are really, really hungry, there’s going to be a lot going in the trash.” “Well, I can match your three an’ I’ll save a slice for breakfast, so there’s another one accounted for.” “I’ve not had pizza for breakfast in ages.” She laughed as she took each of them out of their boxes and placed them in the oven, one at a time. “Oh, there’s a coffee just there for you. I’ve only just made it so it should still be hot.”

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“Thanks.” He said as he made his way over to the coffee machine and picked up his mug, taking a sip. “Yeah, still hot. So I see you’ve been snoopin’ ‘round.” He smiled at her as he watched her place the last pizza in the oven and finally shut the door, clicking the timer around to six minutes. “Why six minutes?” “So that I can swap them around, otherwise the one on top will be char -grilled before the bottom one is cooked.” She lifted her head to look at him, leaning against the counter as she did. “And only snooping in the kitchen. Thought it would be nice for you to have someone else make you a coffee and some food for a change.” She looked down at his boots again. “I like your boots by the way.” “Thanks. And aren’t you just perfect?” He smiled again as he took another sip, his eyes watching hers over the rim of the mug. “Honestly? No. But I can be very kind-hearted when I want to be.” She gave him a quick wink before turning her attention to the square remote on the island. “Can I have a play?” “Um. I dunno.” He was hesitant as he watched her pick it up. “Please?” He sighed as he rolled his eyes. “Go on then, but if the breakers get overloaded I’m blamin’ it all on you.” He took another sip before placing his mug back on the counter top, moving to stand by her side. “Actually, I’d rather show you.” “Okay. This is so strange.” She said and he showed her how to work the lights, dimming them slightly in the kitchen before putting them back to how they were when he had turned them on. “You can click on this one an’ it shows you a map o’ the house. If you press there.” He pointed to the living room icon. “You can choose what ya wanna do. Close

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the blinds, mood lightin’, stereo, room temperature an’ everythin’ else . Only thing in there that’s done by hand is the lamps an’ the fire.” “Wow. This is really something.” She said as the beeper went off on the oven, and Louise quickly moved the top and bottom pizzas around, setting the timer again. “It’s so annoyin’. Only rooms that have switches are upstairs, the two guest rooms an’ the basement. Not that I go down to the basement much.” “Plates?” She said turning around to face him. “I’ll get ‘em.” He went to put the remote down, Louise stopping him before he did. “It’s okay. I’ll get the plates, you can cut them. I can’t slice pizza to save my life.” She chuckled. “It’s a deal. They’re over there.” He pointed to a cupboard on the wall, Louise stretching slightly so that she could reach them and pulling down three of the biggest plates. “I’ll be back in a minute, just somethin’ I forgot.” “What’s that then?” She asked as she watched him make his way to the family room, taking the remote with him. “You’ll see.” He called back, now out of sight. A couple of minutes passed and the beeper went off on the oven, Louise pulling each pizza out onto each plate, placing them on the counter top just as Vaughn walked back into the kitchen. He grabbed a knife out of one of the draws as he headed over to where she was. “D’ya wanna grab a couple o’ drinks outta the refrigerator?” He asked her, looking up from slicing the pizzas. “Sure thing.” She said as she made her way over to the refrigerator and opened one of the doors. “What do you want?”

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“What’s in there?” He asked. “You don’t even know what’s in your own fridge?” She laughed as she caught his gaze. He had just finished cutting the last slice, placing the knife in the sink. “Well, not really. Let’s see.” He walked over and stood behind her. “There’s those Bud Lights if ya wanna beer.” “Nope, not really. Might later.” She said as she scoured the rest of the fridge. “There’s Mountain Dew, Root beer, Coke, and then there’s a load of fruit juice.” “Root beer.” He said, leaning past her to grab a couple of glass bottles out of the fridge. “Forgot I had those.” His face was almost touching Louise’s when he stood back up, and he gave her a light kiss on the lips. She felt him gently throw his arm around her neck, bottles in the same hand. “Good choice.” Louise said as she broke away with a smile, shutting the door and making her way back to the pizzas. “I’ll take two, you take one and the drinks.” “Sounds good to me.” He smiled as he looked her up and down before removing the tops of the bottles and following her, the other pizza in his spare hand. “This room is amazing.” She said as she placed the plates on the coffee table, there just being enough room for all three. She sat down on the Persian rug that sat over the wooden floor under the table and the two couches, each one on either side of the table. “Like the fire?” Vaughn said as he sat on the couch opposite, moving the remote and throwing it next to him as he offered her one of the bottles. “An’ why’re you on the floor?” He asked with a slight frown as he leant against the arm. “It’s beautiful and somewhat romantic.” She glanced up at him with a slight smile, and saw a small blush rise to his cheeks. “So that’s what you were doing when you said you’d forgotten something.” She looked into the roaring fire, the reds

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and oranges lighting up the room as dusk started to turn to night. “And I like to outstretch my legs. I fidget otherwise.” She smiled at him, noticing something else in his eyes tonight and not quite being able to put her finger on what it was. “You seem like the sort that can’t ever sit still.” He smiled back before turning his attention to the pizzas. “So, we gonna eat these before they go cold or what?” He chuckled.

*

*

*

“Wow, it’s actually pitch black outside.” Louise said as she finished her last slice, having managed to eat three already, out doing herself by one. “I’ll put the lights on.” Vaughn said as he finished his bottle of root beer and placed it on the coffee table. They had moved the left over slices and managed to fit them onto one plate, sliding the empty ones under it. He fiddled with the remote for a second, drawing the wooden blinds on the side windows and doors before the lights in the vaulted ceiling came on, lighting up the room in a beautiful orangey yellow glow that enhanced the color of the wood in the room. “Wow.” Louise said as she looked up at the huge array of miniature spot lights attached to the ceiling beams. “Now that was my idea.” Vaughn said with a smile as he slouched against the couch back, watching Louise as she crossed her legs and leant against the opposite couch, still on the floor.

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“Do you mind me asking what wasn’t?” Louise said lightly, her gaze falling back to his, it obvious in his face that he didn’t want to talk about it, but it also clear that he knew he had to. “This whole house. Virtually anyway.” He stood up and picked up the plates, moving towards the kitchen but stopping at the chimney breast and turning to face her. “I think this new conversation is gonna call for those Buds. You in?” “Of course. Want some help?” She asked with a gentle smile, knowing that the next couple of hours were going to be heart breaking and intense. “No, I’m good.” And with that he disappeared into the kitchen, arriving thirty seconds later with two Bud Lights. “Thanks.” Louise said as she took one off him, watching as he carefully pushed the coffee table further towards the glass doors at the end of the room. There was now nothing between the two couches and she thought that it actually looked better that way. She shifted across a little bit so that she was sitting pretty much in the middle, her legs outstretched again, Vaughn sitting down on the couch opposite and putting his feet up so that he was facing the doors. His left knee was bent and against the seat back as he sat up straight against the arm. “I never wanted to build this house.” He just came out with it, not looking at her but instead out of the double doors at the far end of the room, not having closed the blinds properly yet. “I wanted somethin’, I dunno, a bit like this, but on a smaller scale.” He sighed before looking down at Louise. “I ain’t ever told another soul most o’ what I’m gonna tell you. You know that don’t you?” She could see the suffering in his eyes as he clenched his jaw. “Yes. And I’m listening.”

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He hesitated and moved his gaze to the ceiling, taking a deep breath before continuing. “Just before, you know, I met a girl. Her name was Cindy.” He paused again. “I fell for her so hard. I met her at one o’ the rodeos just before I went down to Texas. We moved in together pretty quick.” He sighed. “When I told her ‘bout the money she told me to stop ridin’. That I didn’t need to anymore. It took a while for me to agree, but I eventually gave in.” He looked down at her with a sad smile. “Stupid, I know. Gave up the only thing I really enjoyed for her.” He returned his gaze to the ceiling and continued. “Anyhow, it was my idea to buy the land an’ build somethin’ I really wanted, but she went a little crazy, wanted somethin’ huge. Somethin’, she said, that all her friends would be jealous of, her friends mostly bein’ mi ne too, including Matt an’ Dale. Matt was my closest.” He took a long sip of his beer before swinging his legs back over the side of the couch. He placed his beer on the floor and moved both of his hands to his face before resting his elbows on both of his knees. “I don’t think I can do this.” Louise moved onto her knees and shuffled over to him, placing both of her hands on his thighs. He looked down at the floor before back at her. She could see he was hurting and wished that there was another way for him to tell her, his brown eyes looking almost ready to break down at any moment. She just hoped that her being there and being understanding would help him through it all. “You’re a strong man Vaughn, and I know that you can. I don’t just want to know out of curiosity, I want to know so that I can understand.” She searched his eyes again, him doing the same with her as he took another breath. “She wanted top spec everythin’.” He continued, sitting back into the fabric of the couch again, Louise’s hands slipping to his knees. “I told her she could have whatever she wanted, just that the house was gonna be made o’ logs, that it was my

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money an’ that I should have somethin’ I wanted too. That’s when things started to go wrong. We started to argue, me bein’ a fool an’ thinkin’ it was all to do with the stress o’ the build. I was so in love with her I did everythin’ I could. I bought her a new truck, ‘cause she wanted one. If she wanted money to go shoppin’ she’d have it . An’ when the house was just ‘bout finished, I asked her to marry me. In this very room.” He stopped talking and raised his right hand to his face, covering his eyes. She watched his jaw clench again and knew that he was so close to breaking down. She stayed silent, the only sound in the room the crackling of the fire as she watched him lift his hat and run his hands through his hair. He placed it back on his head, slightly forward, before taking another deep breath and looking out of the glass doors again. She finally found the words to say, and almost with a whisper asked him. “She cheated on you didn’t she?” She watched as his jaw clenched again and she watched his head drop. She sat up on her knees and leant herself forward so that she could touch his face. She felt the dampness on his cheek, but he didn’t bother to move away. “Matt rang me a couple o’ months after we announced our engagement.” He carried on, Louise moving her hand and placing it on the top of his arm. “He told me that they’d been havin’ an affair.” He moved to look at Louise, his brown eyes full of sadness and darker than they had ever been. “For a year.” “Oh, Vaughn.” She cupped his face again, looking deep into his eyes as she rubbed his cheek with her thumb. “Everythin’ fell apart. My whole world disappeared.” He continued, Louise keeping her hand on his face as he bowed his head again. “I wanted to try again,

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forget it happened, but she told me it had only ever been ‘bout the money.” He stopped again, taking another deep breath, it obviously being a lot sharper than he’d intended. “She said she never wanted to see you again.” She finished, knowing that Vaughn couldn’t. He nodding in reply before she placed her hand under his chin and lifted his head. “She was a damn fool.” “Was she?” Vaughn said, sniffing lightly as he wiped a couple of tears from his eyes, the memory obviously being too much for him. “You know she was.” She smiled lightly, her eyes warm and kind. “Matt was my best friend. He was gonna be my best man. I still don’t know how he could’ve done that to me. It’s been a year now, an’ I still don’t know.” His expression changed slightly, and Louise knew this was the source of everything. The stubbornness, the hatred, the jealousy. Everything. “I don’t know either. And I’m not defending him, but he told you. Granted that he took his time, but he told you all the same.” His eyes changed, and she knew she’d said the wrong thing. “How did I know you were gonna say that? Huh?” He stood then, forcing her to move backwards. He moved towards the fireplace, placing his right hand against the chimney, right foot on the hearth, and looked into the flames. “How can ya sit there an’ defend him?” “I’m not defending him Vaughn, honestly.” She said as she observed him. He was very handsome, even when he was angry. She moved over to him, attempting to put her hand on the top of his arm but he shrugging her away, turning to face her as he did.

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“I knew tonight was a bad idea.” He said, the fire reflecting in his eyes before he started to move away. “Oh no you don’t.” She said as she reached for his arm, grasping it hard and making him stop in his tracks. “I will never stick by a cheater Vaughn, never.” She started as he turned to face her again. He wasn’t necessarily going to like what she was about to say, but she said it anyway. “You need to understand that I have been through a lot in my life. A hell of a lot. And I have lost people along the way that I wish I hadn’t. That is why I hold onto Shelby as tightly as I can, and no matter what, I will always try to work things out with her. No. Matter. W hat.” She didn’t take her eyes off his as he tried to wiggle free from her grasp. “Louise.” She could see the slight fear in his eyes as she moved closer. “There will be a time when you need him, or he needs you, and if you don’t lay this to rest, three years down the line you may not be able to forgive yourself. Same goes for him.” She released his arm as she moved closer to him again, her blue eyes becoming softer, along with her voice. “The past is the past. We all need to concentrate on the present.” “That really hurt.” He said, rubbing the red mark on his arm where she had held it, the wounded look still across his face but now teamed with disbelief. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be so, you know, aggressive.” She said as her eyes cooled and he slouched onto the floor, leaning his back against the arm of the couch and facing the fire, one knee bent. He reached around to pick up his bottle and took a swig before placing it back down next to him. “But you were.” He was upset, but had understanding in his voice, and she knew that he wasn’t mad at her. He watched her sit across from him three feet away, her legs outstretched in front of her, ankles crossed and leaning back on her hands.

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He reached over and fetched her bottle of beer, leaning forward and handing it to her in a truce. “Thanks.” She took the Bud Light. “I’m sorry.” “Thinkin’ ‘bout it, I deserved it.” He smiled lightly, her doing the same as she took a drink from the bottle. She placed it next to her when she had swallowed enough, her drinking just over a quarter of the contents. “No one deserves to be hurt. Scared a little, yes. But not hurt.” “I’ve had worse.” He said as he admired her. “Though, I’ve never quite felt like that.” “Like what?” “I dunno. Can’t explain it.” He watched her again for another moment. “So. What happened with you?” “What happened with me. Well.” She took another drink from her bottle, virtually finishing it. “That bad huh?” Vaughn said as he watched her place the empty bottle back on the floor with raised eyebrows. “Give me another six of those for me to finish and I’ll say yes.” She said before starting. “The reason I moved to Elba was because my ex, Chris, was jealous of me having friends. I know, I should have ended it right there.” She saw that he was listening as she had done before, and so carried on. “He’d always had a bad temper, and he’d cheated on me once when we were back down in Mobile. Another reason for the move. Said getting out into the country a bit might help, and being away from people we knew definitely would.” She caught his gaze again as he shifted slightly and leant forward. “Oh, how wrong I was. We moved up here and bought a lovely house, and like I said, I took over Shelby’s job at the drug store. I

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actually got a little curious about her and went to visit her in hospital one night, telling Chris I was going to see a friend. When I arrived in her room I almost broke down. She had a broken arm and a fractured eye socket. Her knee had been dislocated along with her ankle.” She had to stop and looked up into the vaulted ceiling, the light reflection of the fire dancing around the eaves. “I’d never seen anyone look like that.” She grabbed her composure and turned her attention back to Vaughn. “She was awake and asked who I was. I told her and she said it was nice to meet me. Chris was furious when I arrived home that night. He hit me for the second time since we had been together, the first when we were down in Mobile before the move.” “Oh Louise, I had no clue.” Vaughn placed his left hand around the ankle of her boot, his eyes full of sympathy. “I wouldn’t expect you to have.” She said it with a light smile before continuing. “Eventually Shelby came back to work and we formed a huge bond. We’d confide in each other about everything, hence the reason why Bryan didn’t want to split us. He said we were good for each other.” She smiled, her eyes warming up as she said it, remembering the conversation. Her eyes turned cold again as she carried on with the next part of the story. “Chris continued to hit me when he felt like it. If I got home a little late I’d have the back of his hand around my face . If I back chatted him I’d be punched wherever he could reach, usually my ribs because they were hidden underneath a t-shirt or top. He was out late one night and I confronted him, asking him where he had been. We argued and he pushed me at the top of the stairs.” She stopped as she saw his eyes fill with anger and hopelessness. “I didn’t break anything, just had a few good bruises on me. ”

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“You mean he didn’t break anythin’. I don’t understand a man that can do that.” Vaughn shook his head. “There’s more.” She sighed as she remembered the first time she’d experienced real pain, and knew that the man in front of her was not going to like what was coming. “I’d moved out for a couple of days after one of the fights we had. He had pushed me around, breaking some of the furniture in the process, leaving me with some rather nasty bruises, and I had eventually said I was going.” She paused slightly before continuing. “A couple of days later, I arrived back, him shutting the door behind me, almost as if everything was fine. That’s when it happened. I turned back to look at him and my face just exploded. I’d never felt pain like that. Ever. It so happens that he had bought a belt buckle the day before for the sole purpose of putting me in my place. It had an eagle on it and all the detail was embossed, so as it hit me, it cut my entire cheek, almost breaking the bone.” She indicated with her hand where the buckle had hit her, and Vaughn could just make out a couple of very faint white lines that he had never quite noticed before. “I know, I was lucky. And stupid to think he’d be fine.” “Why did ya go back?” He asked her, hand still around her ankle, but slightly tighter than before. “Because I loved him. At least I thought I did.” She said it with a shrug, Vaughn obviously surprised with how well she was taking retelling everything. “I lied to the guys at work and told them my truck had rolled into me as I was fixing one of the tail lights. Shelby didn’t believe me at all and had a chat with me about everything when I went back into work the next week. ” She breathed heavily before finishing, her emotions almost getting the better of her. “She told me that she knew Chris was having an affair, calling the girl he was seeing and her confirming it down

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the phone. She also told me that if I didn’t leave, I’d be the one in the hospital bed, and she’d be the one visiting. She didn’t want me to go through what she had, and at that moment, I knew I’d be dead if I didn’t leave. She took me in.” Louise tried to stop herself but she finally broke down, remembering the conversation her and Shelby had had in the staff room at work. Her blue eyes filled quickly with tears as she moved to avoid Vaughn’s eyes as they started rolling down her cheek quicker than she could stop them. “Oh, honey.” He said as he scooted over to her and pulled her into his chest, her hands covering her eyes as she sobbed, finally letting go of everything that had been haunting her.

*

*

*

Vaughn held onto her tightly, his arms wrapped around her and not wanting to let her go. He was close to tears himself, having heard what that brute of a man had done to her. He had never understood how men could be so violent towards women, it making him cringe every time he heard stories about it. He rested his chin over her head as she bent her knees to help her balance, him doing the same before shutting his eyes and giving her a light kiss on her head. He breathed in the caramel scent of her hair and wondered how a girl like this could have ever fallen for a man so ruthless. After another minute, Louise slowly stopping the flood of tears, she pulled away slightly. “I’m so sorry Vaughn. I hate crying.” She looked at him, her eyes the most brilliant blue, and he knew right there and then that he wanted to spend the rest of his life protecting her.

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“You, little lady.” He started, cupping her face with his hand. “Have nothin’ to be sorry ‘bout.” He smiled gently before reaching down to kiss her, her lips salty from the tears that had run down her face. He kissed her slowly as he moved his hand to her neck, her hair falling between his fingers as he touched her tongue with his. “Vaughn.” Louise said as she pulled away, surprising him. “What’s the matter?” He was shocked that she had moved away, his hand slipping from her neck as she went to stand up. “Can you just give me a minute?” She said as she made her way over to the double doors at the far end of the room. Vaughn stood up to watch her as she leant against the door frame and looked out of the glass into the night, her hands rubbing hers arms as if she was cold. He knew she needed to be left alone with her thoughts and dimmed the lights. The fire lit the rest of the space as the glare of the family room faded in the glass. He picked up the empty bottles and took them into the kitchen, throwing them into the trash underneath the sink before leaning on his hands and staring out of the window with a sigh. An’ I thought I’d had it bad. He thought as he noticed a star shoot across the sky, leaning forward a little so that he could get a better look. He took a deep breath before deciding to walk back into the family room, stopping as he reached the chimney breast again and leaning his shoulder against it. He watched her with a loving smile on his face, his eyes gentle as he took her in as a whole. She’s such an angel. He moved himself from the wall and slowly made his way over to her, her not moving or acknowledging him as he drew closer.

*

*

*

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“Beautiful night.” She said as she heard him walk up behind her, his boots not exactly quiet on the wooden floor. Her heart skipped a beat as he placed his hands on the tops of her arms. “Beautiful girl.” He added as he moved his hands down her skin and held her too him around her waist. “I’m hardly that.” She didn’t turn around but instead kept her gaze focused outside. “Well.” She felt him place his cheek against the side of her head. “I know for a fact that you are.” “Look at how red my eyes are Vaughn.” She turned around in his arms and looked up at him. “You can hardly say that at this minute in time I’m beautiful.” “Yes I can.” He said as he searched her eyes. He moved his right hand to her cheek, wiping away a lone tear that had just fallen with his thumb. She shut her eyes at his touch. “An’ I mean it.” “I have never had anyone tell me that I’m beautiful as often as you have.” She said as she pulled away and leant her head against the door frame, her eyes tired but questioning. “Why do you?” “Louise, I-” “Why?” He leant his shoulder against the glass facing her, the flickers in his eyes telling her he was nervous. “I’m fallin’ in love with you. That’s why.” There was silence after he said it, the fire crackling in the background as they held each other’s gaze.

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Vaughn moved his left hand to the top of her arm. She watched as he moved it slowly down until it reached her hand. His gaze dropped as his fingers twisted loosely around hers. “I don’t quite know what to say.” She whispered as she turned her eyes back to his. She saw just how vulnerable he was at that very moment and understood that he hadn’t felt like that in a long time. “Really?” “I wouldn’t say it if I wasn’t.” He replied. “An’ I can’t believe I have.” “Vaughn?” Louise took her head away from the door frame and glanced down at their entwined fingers before catching his gaze again. “Um.” “Kiss me.” Her eyes didn’t change, but her voice shook slightly as her breaths became light and stammered. Vaughn straightened up as he pulled her hand around his back. She felt his hand in her hair as he bent down and touched his lips against hers. Their tongues found each other’s as they kissed deeply, his tongue perfect and sensual against hers. His arm was around her waist, holding her tight against him. Every sense in her body was tingling with anticipation. Suddenly he moved so that her back was pressed against the glass of the door, a new wave of hunger rising inside her. She felt his arm move, his hand teasing her waist before running along the back of her thigh. His touch made her hairs stand on edge, the feel of his fingertips on her thigh overwhelming. He lifted her leg so that her knee was bent, pulling her to him with a sharp tug. She gasped at the advance, her heart pounding in her chest as she felt him throbbing against her.

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She took hold of the top of his arm, holding on tightly as he moved her hair so that he could kiss her neck. His lips were like electricity against her skin and she could feel herself about ready to buckle. Her eyes were still closed as she felt him move from her neck and along her jaw line, placing his hand against the glass. She felt him push himself away from her slightly, his tongue moving around hers slowly and playfully, his desire to have her right here and now more than obvious. Louise pressed herself against the glass as his hands moved to her waist. She moved hers slowly down his chest, pulling his shirt out from his jeans before undoing the snap fastenings. He broke the kiss and flinched slightly as he tilted his head to watch her. She ran her palms around his waist, her pulse quickening as she felt his muscles tense underneath his t-shirt. She watched his eyes fill with a lust she could have only imagined, images of the inevitable filling her mind and sending a new wave of passion through her. She moved her hands down to his Wranglers and pulled him to her violently with his belt. Both of his hands moved around her as she pressed her lips against his, his tongue sliding over hers as her arms moved around his shoulders. Their kiss exploded, Louise groaning slightly as he thrust himself against her. She felt his hands move down to her thighs and he lifted her effortlessly, pushing her hard against the glass of the door. She met him half way as he thrust against her again, her heart thundering in her chest as his right hand moved underneath her top. His fingers teased her waist like licks of fire against her skin, causing her to break the kiss with a gasp that she just couldn’t contain. “Vaughn.”

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“Louise.” His voice was low and sultry. “Want me to stop?” He asked in a whisper before his lips moved to her neck again. She felt his hands move, the fingertips on each traveling to her inner thighs, pulling her legs further apart so he could get closer. “No.” She gasped as he thrust against her again, her hold on his shoulder tightening. “Then what?” His breath was warm against her ear as his lips moved from her neck. “The glass.” She just managed it as his mouth covered hers again. “Okay.” She felt him drop his hands from her thighs to let her down. She slid from his waist, her hands gliding down his arms before resting on his belt, her fingers tucked behind it. She moved her eyes to his, neither of them shifting but rather watching the fire in each other’s eyes. The air between them was charged and thick with electricity, the lack of movement making things tenser by the second. Oh my God. She tried to catch her breath. She hadn’t felt like this in years and even then it had never been this intense or passionate. “I think we should move away from this glass.” She said it seductively as she stepped towards him. Their eyes were still locked on each other’s as she brushed past him and slowly backed away. He turned to watch her as she skimmed the coffee table, making her way back towards the fire with a teasing grin on her lips. She stopped perfectly between the arms of the two couches, the flames either side of her silhouette giving her an almost devilish look. The glow of the fire made the browns and reds in her hair come to life, and she knew that, right now, he’d find her more irresistible than he ever had.

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“Where d’ya think you’re goin’?” Vaughn said as he started to make his way over to her. He didn’t take his eyes from hers, even when he came to a stop inches away from her. He was close enough for her to feel his breath on her cheek, but she resisted the urge to reach out and touch him. Louise watched the flashes of lust skip across his eyes and felt her heart skip as he finally gave into temptation. He slowly moved his hand up and around the back of her head and into her hair again, still not taking his eyes off hers. She placed her fingers around his belt either side of his buckle, and pulled him to her gently as he reached down to kiss her again. Their bodies touched, Vaughn not moving his hand from the back of her head as her hair fell between his fingers again. Their tongues pressed against each other’s lightly as she felt him wrap his left arm around her. Her fingers moved underneath the waist band of his jeans, making his whole body tense as she felt his pulse race harder against her fingertips. He broke the kiss suddenly, Louise biting her bottom lip as he stepped back, moving his hand from her hair. His eyes were intense as he took her hand in his. “Louise.” His eyes were dark and hungry and she knew exactly what he wanted. “Upstairs.” She was never normally forward, but just this once, her pulse quickening by the second, she wanted to be. He didn’t hesitate and lead her out of the family room and slowly up the stairs, her climbing them one step behind him. This is it. This is it Louise. “You sure?” He asked, stopping by the bedroom door as they entered the loft. “Yes.” Was her answer, and kicking the bedroom door open behind him with his foot, he pulled her gently into the dimly lit room, not taking his eyes from hers. He

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stopped by the bed, her heart thumping in her chest as he pulled her to him. He wrapped his arms around her again as he kissed her softly like he had done at the lake. A shiver of excitement and nerves coursed through her as she lifted her hands to the collar of his shirt, gently pushing it off his shoulders. She moved it down his arms as he let go of her momentarily, dropping it on the floor before he pulled her back to him. His kisses were passionate, his tongue massaging hers as she pulled him with her onto the bed. His hands moved to the comforter as she slowly drew him further up and on top of her, his left leg between hers. She ran her hand up to the back of his head and took hold of his hat, pulling away from his lips as she reached up to place it over the post on his headboard, a smile creeping across her face. He chuckled as he ran his left hand down her ribcage to her waist, lifting her top to expose her stomach. She felt him kiss her lightly, her muscles tensing as she closed her eyes and inhaled sharply. He ran his hand down her right leg, all the way to the heel of her boot and pulled on it lightly so that it slipped off, dropping it to the floor. She felt him shift so that both of his legs were between hers, and did the same with the other. Her left hand slid up his arm, her fiery blue eyes watching him inch his way back up to her. Her heart was racing and her breath shaking with anticipation as he lower himself on top of her, his buckle warm against her skin. His tongue found hers as she moved her free hand to the back of his head, his elbows in the sheets and hands in her hair. She felt him kick off his boots, each

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one landing on the floor with a thump. Her hands moved to the bottom of his t-shirt, breaking the kiss only for a second as she tugged it over his head. His right hand moved to her back, his tongue intense and hot as he pulled her up and into him, a groan escaping from her throat as he thrust against her. I can’t believe I’m going to do this. Louise thought, the passion of the night overwhelming her as she felt his muscular arms around her, skin on skin. She bit her bottom lip as he kissed her jaw, moving his lips over her neck as his hands travelled to the light material of her top. He gently rolled it up further, tickling her skin with his fingertips before pulling it over her head, exposing her black lace bra. She watched as his eyes danced over her torso before he moved to kiss her collar bone, the fingers of his left hand running slowly across her naked stomach. It made her shiver, the hairs all over her body standing on end as she arched her back with a gasp. As he moved back to her mouth, her hands gently found their way up his arms and to his bare back, feeling his muscles move as he shifted himself slightly so that he was back on top of her. The chill of his buckle on her skin made her gasp again, the temperature change taking her by surprise. The touch of his skin on hers was exhilarating and she knew that it would drive any woman insane if they were in her position right at this very second. Their tongues slid over one another’s as their kiss became heated, Louise’s left hand on the back of his head and running through his hair. She felt him shift again, pulling back from the kiss as his intense brown eyes moved down to the waist of her jeans before back to hers. She raised one hand to her mouth, giving him a playful smile as he undid her belt with one hand before the button and zip.

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She watched as he moved to his knees, both of his hands sliding up to her waist before he ran his fingers down to where her jeans sat just below her hips. He ran each of his index fingers just underneath and against her skin, making her hair stand on end as she watched him. He bent down and kissed her stomach softly, her muscles tense and quivering as he moved his mouth across to her hips. She lifted herself so that he could pull her jeans down and around her thighs, his hands teasing her skin as they moved back to her waist. He kissed hungrily along the line of her black lace underpants that matched her bra perfectly, her knees going weak as she moaned with surprise. She felt his lips move from her skin as he slipped off the end of the bed and pulled off her jeans, taking her socks with them. She watched him drop them to the floor before sliding down to meet him, looking straight up at him as she placed her hands on his buckle. The pulsing bulge in his jeans was more than obvious and it made her heart race knowing she was so close. “I’ll be back in a minute.” He said in a whisper as he kissed her lightly before making his way to the bathroom. She knew exactly what he was going to fetch, and it made her shake slightly. She smiled to herself, her heart jumping as she replayed the image of him only wearing his jeans, his muscular torso being irresistibly smooth. There was something about a man in just jeans with a belt and buckle that got her pulse racing, and this man in particular made her feel as if she was about to explode. Her mind wandered as she ran her hand along the faux fur blanket underneath her thighs before looking down at it with a devilish half smile. She stood up to open it fully and slid underneath it. She pushed herself back onto the bed as she heard the bathroom door open and the light switch flick off, smiling to herself as

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she propped her head up with her right hand. She watched him make his way back over to the bed, a hungry grin on his face when he saw her. “Like it?” She said seductively as he met her at the side of the bed, placing a foil packet on the night stand. “Definitely.” He whispered as she sat up and took hold of his belt. She watched his eyes as she unhooked his buckle before pulling open the buttons on his Wranglers. His brown eyes told her he was more than desperate for her. She pushed his jeans down his legs, never taking her eyes from his as they fell to the floor. He pushed her back down on the bed with a hot and greedy kiss, stepping out of his jeans as he slid underneath the blanket. He wrapped his arms around her, holding her against him as he lay on his side. She felt him glide his right hand up her back, and with that one hand, undid the clasp of her bra. He moved the straps lightly off her shoulders as he kissed her neck, Louise letting out a whimper as she felt his thumb brush against her breast. She slipped her arms slowly out of the straps as he moved his head, watching his fingers run down her arms. She shivered as he delicately pulled the bra from her, dropping it over his shoulder to the floor. She held his gaze as he placed his hand around the back of her head before softly running his fingertips down her neck, his eyes following as his fingers moved gently across her skin. His arm brushed against hers as she felt him trace the outline of her shoulder blade, her breaths short and irregular. She felt his fingertips gently tease her skin, her pupils growing wider and her breath shallower as he started to move his hand, running it down her hip and leg before cupping her thigh just above her knee. He forcefully pulled her leg over his,

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and she gasped at the sudden movement that allowed his leg to sit between hers. He effortlessly moved on top of her again, stroking her hair with his free hand. She moved her hands down his back to the waist of his boxer briefs, feeling him shiver as she rolled her index fingers around to his front. She pulled them down, still not moving her eyes from his as she felt him throbbing against the back of her hands. She stretched up to the night stand and grabbed the foil packet as he ran his hands up her legs to her underpants, her heart beating wildly with both excitement and nerves. She bent her left knee and raised her leg, allowing him to slip her lace underpants down. She shifted as she did the same with the other, the lace sliding down her leg and making her shudder. She smiled as she offered him the packet that was in her hand, watching as he took it and ripped it open. Seconds seemed to turn to minutes as she watched him with the condom, her breathing becoming deeper still. The moment was making her heart pound faster and harder than it ever had, the suspense almost too much. She watched him move to kiss her lightly, resting his elbows on the sheets again as she closed her eyes, his tongue wrapping around hers. Her heart thumped in her chest as she felt him push himself inside her, arching her back and letting a groan escape as her senses went wild. Her fingertips pressed into his skin as he found his rhythm, his thrusts long and deep, temping to push her over the edge sooner than she wanted. He ran his hands through her hair and his lips down her neck as they made love, it more passionate than Louise had ever experienced. She wrapped her arms around him as his hand found her waist again, pulling her to him and making her gasp. She opened her eyes as his gaze moved back to

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hers, his brown eyes full of a darkness she could only describe as obsession. She knew right there and then that he was hers for as long as she wanted him.

*

*

*

They lay facing each other, Vaughn’s head propped up on his left hand as he brushed Louise’s cheek. He moved a couple of stray strands of hair from her face before kissing her tenderly on her lips. “Can you promise me one thing?” He whispered as he moved his lips from hers, their eyes locking onto each other’s as he pulled away. “Depends what it is.” She said with a light smile. She had never felt as content as she did at this moment in time. “Don’t break my heart.” “Vaughn I-” “Please.” He ran his hand through her hair before resting it just above her collar bone on her neck, his eyes giving away just how hard he had fallen for her. She searched his eyes before bringing her hand to his face. “I’m sorry I didn’t say it before, but.” She paused for a second before deciding to jump in with both feet like he had done earlier. “I’m in love with you Vaughn. And I’m not just saying that because I’m lying here naked with you under a fur blanket.” Her eyes smiled as she watched a grin appear on his face. “Promise?” “I promise.” She giggled as he kissed her again with a smile, tickling her with pecks along her cheek and neck, making her laugh.

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“I’m gonna go sort myself out.” He said as he pulled back from her again, the smile still on his lips. “Don’t you go anywhere.” He slipped to the side of the bed and she watched as he pulled on his Wranglers, doing up the top button to stop them falling down. He turned back to look at her and gave her another kiss. She watched him make his way into the bathroom again, the sweetness of his lips still tingling hers. She couldn’t help but smile to herself as she rolled onto her back and pulled the blanket up to her chin. She had never experienced the passion and heat she just had, the replay of the last hour making her shiver all over. She hadn’t been with a man like this for too long, her ex never one for passion or romance, and her having sex was definitely not something she had planned. Not until Vaughn had showed up in the store that day, and even then it was closer to a day dream than reality. But right now, as she lay in his bed completely satisfied, there was nowhere else she’d rather be. As she rolled on her front, she smiled as she noticed the pillows were mostly on the floor and the covers weren’t half as neat as they had been earlier. She saw a sheet peeking from underneath the duvet and, standing up off the bed, pulled it out and wrapped it around her, throwing the faux fur blanket back onto the bed as something else caught her eye. His black Stetson. It was still on the post attached to the headboard, and she smiled to herself again as she picked it up and placed it on her head. She made her way to the double doors that opened up onto the balcony, flipping the catch and opening both of the doors. She took in a deep breath, the gentle breeze exactly what she needed. She walked out onto the balcony, looking up at the stars in the sky before she felt a presence behind her. She turned around casually to see the man she had fallen for walking over to her, his jeans and belt now

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properly fastened. She tilted her head to the right in a flirtatious response, her heart skipping a beat as she watched him. “An angel in a cowboy’s hat.” Vaughn said as he took her by her waist and pulled her to him. She placed her hand on top of his Stetson to stop it from falling off as she leant backwards. “Who said I was an angel?” She asked. “No one, but I do like the sheet.” “I thought you would.” She smiled as she kissed him lightly, removing her hand from his Stetson only for him to take it and place it on his own head. “An’ you’ll find that’s mine.” He teased as he pulled back from her, left arm still around her waist, the fingers of his right hand in her hair. “What’s up?” “Nothing.” She searched his eyes before finishing. “But I think I should get going.” She felt terrible saying it, but she wasn’t sure about waking up in the morning with him next to her. She wasn’t used to the kind of affection he gave her and was unsure of what such a morning would be like. “You, little lady, are stayin’ right here with me.” He cupped her face, his eyes understanding but firm. “No buts.” “I’m just not used to this, is all.” She gazed up at him, her eyes shy and insecure. His mouth covered hers again, his tongue gentle and soothing, making her pulse race, catching her off guard. “I think someone’s gone all shy on me.” He smiled as he broke away from her and held her at arm’s length. “An’ I know a cure for that.” He said as he moved back to her and picked her up in his arms. She giggled as he walked back into the room with her arms around his shoulders.

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He gently threw her onto the bed, the sheet that was wrapped around her hardly moving. She laughed as he bent down to tickle her neck again with kisses, her hand reaching for his arm that was holding him up and tugging it from underneath him. He fell onto his back as she pinned him to the bed, his eyes playfully watching hers. “And I wonder what this cure is exactly?” She giggled as he moved his arms from underneath her wrists. She kept her eyes on his as he placed his hands on either side of her face, pulling her down to him and kissing her like there was no tomorrow.

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What She Don’t Know

He pressed the call button on his phone and waited three rings. “Hello?” “Is that Matt?” He asked. “Yeah, who’s this?” Matt asked. “I want ya to help me with somethin’.” “Okay, but who is this?” “You know who I am. It’s Chris Muvee.” He finally gave away who he was. “Louise’s ex?” Chris could hear slight concern in Matt’s voice. “Yeah. You also got that truck off me few years back.” He said it with a smug smile, hoping that he’d remember exactly what he had let slip the night they went out for a few beers. “Yeah, I did. What’s the problem? I’m kinda busy at the minute.” He wanted to get off the phone, that much was obvious, and the sound of music in the background also told Chris that he was in a bar. “I want ya to help me with somethin’. Concernin’ Louise.” Chris was standing in the basement of his house, just underneath the lone light bulb that was hanging from the ceiling. “I ain’t interested man.” Matt sounded fed up, so Chris decided to spice up the conversation a little. “But I bet those folks down in Arizona would sure like to know a thing or two ‘bout that horse o’ yours.” He tapped the bulb with his index finger and watched it sway back and forth with a sly smile on his face. The line went silent for a couple of seconds, the music disappearing as a door shut.

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“Okay. You got my attention.” “Good.” Chris smiled again, reaching up to stop the swing of the bulb before carrying on. “I need her away from that other guy she’s with, an’ I know you’re the only one that can do that.” “Ain’t happenin’.” It was obvious that his guy needed a push. “You can’t tell me you ain’t ever thought ‘bout havin’ her to yourself.” Chris wanted to make this work, and so, no matter how much it killed him to say what he was about to, he said it anyway. “To do things to her you can only dream ‘bout. Have her surrender to you an’ want you as much as you want her.” “What’re ya tryin’ to get at?” He heard Matt’s boots clatter on wood and knew he was outside somewhere, getting restless. “I’m sayin’ I don’t want her with Vaughn any more than you do. An’ I think she’d be happy to see you when ya get back from that rodeo.” He had him hooked. “I ain’t comin’ back yet.” Matt’s voice waivered, Chris knowing that he was lying. “I know you are. Can’t rope with a broken wrist.” Chris smiled. He knew that he had Matt up against a brick wall when the line went silent again. “I’m back in four days. Wednesday.” “Better than expected.” “Don’t make me do this to her.” “Well, I’m sure the President o’ the PRCA wouldn’t mind takin’ his next call.” Chris was so close to laughing it was starting to get difficult to contain himself. “Okay, okay. Fine.” “Fine what?” Chris was testing him. “This ain’t right man, an’ you know it ain’t.”

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“Just do this one thing, an’ I’ll make it worth your while, if ya know where I’m comin’ from.” Chris took a couple of steps towards the chair that was in the room, placing one foot on the seat as he carried on. “An’ I think Wednesday is a great night.” “I ain’t gonna be back ‘til late.” Matt was trying to get out of it, but from the sounds of his voice he knew he had no choice. “The later the better.” “She ain’t gonna like this, an’ neither is Vaughn.” “An’ I care ‘bout him?” Chris chuckled down his cell phone, the sigh on the other end a sure sign that he had got what he wanted. “Well I do.” Matt changed his tone to one that was sterner, but the panic still finding a way through. “One call Matt. One call an’ your Pro Rodeo an’ gold buckle dreams go poof.” Chris bent down to fiddle with his workman boots, flicking off a piece of mud that had found its way onto them. “You shit.” Matt was silent for another minute or so, Chris thinking he’d hung up on him. “I’ll be there Wednesday. Don’t expect anythin’ else.” “Good. An’ I don’t.” With that, Chris cancelled the call, a smug smile lighting his face as he pushed the chair away from him and turned around. He made his way into the room with the small CCTV sets, one set up for the room he was just in, the other for the room down the hall. He was glad that Matt had given in so easily, him obviously wanting a gold buckle more than anything else in this world to do what he had just done. But deep down inside, Chris knew he’d be the easiest to deal with. Blackmail always seemed

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to work in situations like this, and the fact that Matt had used steroids on Chute a few years ago wouldn’t have gone down very well with the men in charge. Matt had told Chris about him enhancing his horses’ performance when they had gone out for a few beers after he had purchased his Silverado from the dealership Chris worked at. Matt had been rather drunk and laughed with Chris about the stupid things he had done on the road and in the rodeos, that little factor just slipping out. He also mentioned the fact that the steroid was experimental and virtually untraceable, the only side effects being a faster than usual heart rate. Chris laughed as he remembered that night at the bar and the conversations, the girls that flirted with Matt just because he was wearing a cowboy hat and was a little worse for wear. That’s when his attention turned back to the task in hand and how he was going to get Louise over here without a fuss. Firstly he needed to get rid of her lap dog. Matt was the one that was sorting all of that out from now on, and from the sounds of it, he wasn’t going to make a mess of it either. Secondly he needed to get her to the house without her knowing where it was she was going, the only way he knew to do that was to knock her unconscious. She could put up a damn good fight when she wanted to and he thought that the best thing would be to either break in or run her off the road. The latter appealed to him that little bit more as it wouldn’t alert the neighbours. He knew that he had to do whatever it took to teach her a lesson and stroked his eagle belt buckle with a smile across his face. He remembered the satisfaction and power he felt whenever it connected with her flesh, the first time being the most invigorating, and he had to admit, arousing. He knew that it would take a lot to get

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her back to how she used to be, that friend of hers, Shelby, throwing her off the edge and teaching her disgusting habits. Louise had never been trailer trash, but since she had met Shelby, the only difference between trailer trash and Louise was that British accent of hers. That was why he had the chair. And the rope. And that video camera. It was also the reason why he had a chair and some ropes set up in the other room. Someone was bound to come looking for her at some point, and that room was especially for them. He had a gut feeling that it would be Vaughn and if so, he would have some fun with him. All he had to do now was wait for the call to come in on Wednesday to tell him that everything had been taken care of, and he was sure that he would know exactly when everything kicked off. He could almost guarantee that she would be alone and crying, her adrenalin making her go for a good long drive with her foot to the floor and no care for her own safety. That would be when he would pounce.

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Flirtin’ With Disaster

It was Wednesday night and Louise had finally managed to take some time out and get underneath her deep red, almost purple 1980 Chevrolet Camaro Z-28. She had asked Dale to pop over and help her drop the rebuilt engine and transmission back under the hood, Shelby not wanting to get her hands dirty but attempting to help out all the same. Louise had to shout at her to make them a cup of coffee a good few times to get her away from distracting Dale. After all Louise didn’t really fancy having an engine block dropped onto her feet or her hands, especially after seeing the mess one had made of one of her friends’ hands back down in Mobile. Three hours later they had left, the engine secured in place and just needing the odd bits hooking back up. She was now on her back on her makeshift creeper board tightening up some nuts on the brackets for the front exhaust pipes. She was glad for the lead lamp that was clamped underneath as she wouldn’t have been able to see a thing otherwise. She hadn’t long had the car painted back to its original color, the deep red almost purple being one of the most stunning colors she’d ever seen, and whenever she saw it, it always made her smile. The only thing was that she had to try not to scratch it, and that fact was a lot harder than it sounded. She also had her mp3 player hooked up to the old CD player that hung on the wall, the music not too loud due to her neighbours, but loud enough for her to hear over the thunderous rain outside. She rolled out from underneath as she finished tightening the last nut on the right, sat up and rubbed her hands down her jeans. She reached for a bottle of water

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and took a big sip as she looked out of the garage at the pouring rain. She had left the door open to keep her cool and as she embraced the breeze that gently blew in, she was glad she had done. She was wearing an old denim shirt with a white camisole underneath and some dark boy fit jeans. The jeans were old and she liked the fact she didn’t have to keep a rag with her to wipe her hands on. Her hair was half up and half down, strays having fallen free at the front, and she knew if Vaughn could see her now that he wouldn’t be able to contain himself. She reached for her phone that was in her left pocket and smiled as she thought about calling him, but as she glanced back at the pointed smile of her car, decided not to. There would be a chance for him to see her like this someday soon. She checked the clock on the wall, sighing when she saw that it was almost 10pm. She put the bottle of water down and, making sure her hair was out of the way of the wheels, pushed herself back underneath the engine of her Z-28. She turned her attention to the left side with a smile, thinking about how Vaughn had pushed her down on his Firebird back in the barn and how it had taken all of her strength to resist him and his touch. She shook the thought away, her smile not disappearing as she tried to concentrate on the task in hand, the images in her head moving to last Thursday night and how amazing he looked in just his Wranglers and his Stetson. As she tightened another bolt with a smile, listening to the sounds of the rain and the song on the stereo, she failed to notice the white Silverado that had pulled up behind her truck.

*

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*

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Matt sat in the cab of his truck and glanced over to the strip lights that were on in Louise’s garage, her obviously having found the time to get onto that project of hers. He sighed as he remembered the conversation he’d had with Chris at the weekend. He looked down at his bandaged and splinted wrist and hand before he leaned his head on his steering wheel. He rolled his forehead so that he was looking back into the garage, the rain running in rivers down the window. He closed his eyes and reached down for the door handle, sighing again as he put on a fake smile. Damn you Chris. He jumped out of his truck, shutting the door a little quieter than usual as he pulled down his Resistol to cover his eyes, not caring about locking his Silverado or the fact that he was illegally parked. He had rolled up the sleeves of his blue checked shirt that was tucked into his Wranglers, buckle on show. His boots were a little mucky from the walk he had taken earlier that day before he had left the motel, not that he had really slept since that call. He slowly made his way over to the garage, his heart pounding in his chest as he rounded her truck and saw her underneath the front of her Camaro, her right foot tapping the concrete floor. He didn’t want to do this too her, but he knew that he didn’t have a choice. He knew that he could wind up in jail for what he had done a couple of years ago, even though he hadn’t done it since. He also knew that Vaughn’s heart would be well and truly shattered and that Louise would never want to see him again for as long as she lived. Lord knew that he had wanted Louise since the first moment he saw her, the flirty glints in her eyes more than he could stand, but he had also respected the fact

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that her heart belonged to another man. He’d realised that after the sixth time she’d turned him down, unlike Cindy. He had never encountered someone like her before, and normally he felt pretty confident with women, but with Louise it was a totally different story. She’d let you know where you stood one minute, and the next minute you’d have t he rug pulled from underneath your feet. That was what attracted him to her. He reached the concrete floor of the garage and squatted down a couple of feet in front of her. He sighed before he grasped her ankle with his good hand and pulled her out front underneath the Z-28, standing up slightly so that he could slide her between his legs. “What the hell?” She exclaimed as her torso slid out, her head following. “Hey sugar.” Matt said, trying to sound happy, but not sure it came across very well. “Guess who’s back?” “Oh my gosh, Matt!” She said as she sat up on her board before springing to her feet, only inches away from him. “Surprised?” He said as she reached around his shoulders to give him a hug, it obvious that she had missed him. He wrapped his arms around her waist, careful not to knock his wrist. “Yes. I can’t believe you’re back. I wasn’t expecting to see you until at least Saturday.” She smiled as she released him, her warm smile contagious. “You’re soaked.” “You’re gonna get me all crapped up.” He said with a laugh. “An’ it is pourin’ down out there. Here, check this out.” He said as he stepped back and showed her his wrist.

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“What happened?” She moved her hand to just below his elbow and rested his wrist on her arm as she looked, Matt a little relieved for the pressure to be taken off it. “Broke it. Bull got loose an’ guess who he aimed for.” It was a rhetorical question and he raised his eyebrows. “Just my luck.” “Oh Matt. How long are you out for?” She was sympathetic as she gently let go, her eyes moving to his as he looked down at her. “Doc says I should let it heal for six weeks, but I’m hopin’ to get it checked in four. If it had been my left I wouldn’t be so bothered, ‘cause I’d still be able to rope with my right. I’d just have to grit an’ bare the pain for the other bits.” He sighed as he saw the sadness in her eyes, her obviously understanding what it meant for him not to be able to rope for a while. At that moment he felt guiltier than he ever had, even when he had been with Cindy. “Just make sure it’s healed properly before you go back out there.” She smiled as she turned and he watched her walk over to one of the wooden benches, throwing the wrench into the open tool chest. She turned and started to walk back to him and he watched as her eyes moved to his Silverado. “Where’s Chute? You dropped him back at the ranch?” “Actually, no. The guys are lookin’ after him while I’m out . Saves him the trip back an’ forth.” He moved his gaze to his pickup before catching hers again. “If I’m honest I kinda came straight here.” “You haven’t even been home yet?” Louise had her hands on her hips as she stopped in front of him. “Nope.” He looked down at his boots as he shuffled his feet slightly. He could feel her watching him and waiting for a reason. “I just wanted to see you first, is all.”

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“Well thank you for thinking of me.” He heard the smile and lifted his head again so that he could see her from underneath his hat. Time to change the subject Matt. “She’s comin’ along well.” Matt said as he moved forward a little and peered into the engine bay of the car, admiring the work on the small block engine. The chrome was almost dazzling. “Yeah. Dale came by earlier and helped me get the engine and tranny back in. He’s a real star.” She joined him in looking over the small block V8, her right hand leaning on the cloth that was protecting the paintwork. “Though, the same can’t be said for Shelby.” “Her an’ Dale are gettin’ on pretty fine I hear.” Matt didn’t move his gaze from the small block, him staring at it rather than taking anything in. “Yeah they are. I’ve not seen Shelby like this, ever.” He caught Louise’s smile out the corner of his eye, but didn’t snap back to reality until her hand touched his arm. “You okay?” He turned to her and shook his blank expression away. “Yeah. I’m fine. Just had a long drive is all.” He gave her a smile before moving his left hand to her face, and by her expression, she definitely didn’t expect it. “You have a huge smug o’ grease on your cheek.” He laughed as he moved his thumb across it, making it a little worse. “I have been working on this baby since I got back from work, so I’m bound to have.” She giggled as he moved his hand, Matt catching a flutter of nerves in her eyes. “Well the whole mechanic look suits ya just perfectly.” He said as he rocked back on his heels and looked her up and down, the oil and grease on her jeans, shirt

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and her cheeks making her look strangely beautiful. The way her hair was falling out of her half up and half down pony tail made his heart race that little bit more. “Thanks. I used to wear dungarees when I was working on cars down in Mobile, but the guys liked it a little too much, hence the jeans.” She laughed. “I bet they did. What guy wouldn’t?” He said as he took a step closer to her, raising his hand and moving a strand of hair behind her ear. “Someone’s pushing again.” She smiled as she stepped back slightly before walking to the back of the garage. He watched as she pulled a new bottle of water out the mini fridge that sat on the edge of the work bench. Matt walked over and stood to the side of her, so close that when she turned around she nearly dropped the bottle on the floor with a gasp. “You sayin’ you don’t like it?” He flirted with her, trying to push the real reason why he was to the back of his mind. “I’m not saying anything.” She smiled up at him nervously, his intense grey eyes seeming to put her a little on edge. “Am I too close for comfort?” He asked with a teasing grin, his left fingers moving to the wall behind them as Louise took a couple of steps back. He moved with her. “Yes, a little.” She didn’t take her eyes from his, and he knew her heart was pounding in her chest just as his was. “You’re captivatin’.” He said as she bumped into the wall, her pupils growing bigger, realising there was nowhere she could go to escape him. “Matt, I don’t know how to tell you this, but me and Vaug-” “Don’t think I don’t know ‘bout him.” He leant into her and whispered in her ear with a silky smooth tone.

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“Matt.” He moved so that the side of his nose was resting lightly against her cheek, his Resistol lightly skimming her hair. “Louise.” He whispered again, bending his elbow and flattened his hand on the wall before placing his arm around her waist, pulling her to him. “Don’t. Please.” She whispered, her eyes closed. “Why?” He asked, moving his face so that their noses were almost touching. He watched her as she opened her eyes, the blue stunning him. “Because.” “I need a better answer than that sugar.” He didn’t smile, but instead stayed focused on her eyes, knowing that the flashes she could see told her exactly what he wanted. “I’m not yours Matt.” “An’ what?” He hated to see her like this, but he knew that he had to finsh what he’d started. “Matt, please. I don’t wan-“ “I don’t care.” He said as he leaned into her, covering her mouth with his as he pressed her against the garage wall. His left hand moved to her neck as she tried her hardest to struggle free, her free hand moving to his left shoulder trying to push him away. She struggled trying to stop him until she finally she gave in, there being no escape. He kissed her fiercely as he kept her pinned against the wall, his right arm nestled in the small of her back so that he didn’t hit his wrist. He had wanted to kiss her for so long, but was angry that it had to be like this, knowing that afterwards he’d lose her for good and the chance of any ceasefire with Vaughn now gone forever.

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He pulled away from her after what felt like an eternity, her having fought him but not succeeding. It was one of the most exhilarating kisses he had ever had, his heart still racing as he moved his hand back to the wall. He opened his eyes just moments before she opened hers. A mix of emotions flickered across them as she raised her hand to her mouth, almost as if not quite believing what she had done. She moved her head to her right, not being able to look at him as her eyes started to fill with tears, and even though it was only a kiss, he could tell that it had killed her inside. He moved his hand from the wall and gently cupped her face, pulling her back around to look at him. Neither of them said a word, instead they both stood watching each other, a tear falling down Louise’s cheek. All of a sudden a door slammed and tyres squealed, Louise taking her eyes from Matt’s and looking around his shoulder to see a black pickup truck speed off down the road. “Oh my God, Vaughn!” She gasped as she pushed Matt out of the way and ran to the front of the garage, him turning to watch her. “Louise! ” Matt shouted to her, as she turned back around and raced over to her set of keys that were on the work bench. “Shut the garage door. House is locked.” She threw him the remote for the door before sprinting outside into the pouring rain to her Custom 10. Matt raced after her, clicking the remote as she swung herself into the driver’s seat . He just managed to reach her door before she shut it, holding it open and not caring if he got completely soaked. “Leave him.” He said as she started the engine, knowing that the answer would be a definite no.

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“I can’t Matt. You have no idea what you’ve just done.” And with that he let go of her door and watched as she reversed out of her drive over her front lawn, just missing the bed of his truck as she swung into the road. He stood and watched as she squealed off in the same direction as Vaughn, the rain thundering in his ears as he made his way back to his Silverado. Fuck. He punched the side of the bed with his left hand, water splashing onto the ground. He wasn’t angry that she had gone after him, but cursed himself for choosing the path he had. He rested his elbows against his truck as he placed his head in his hands, his eyes filling slowly. His hat was almost to the point of falling, his face no longer protected from the downpour, but not caring. He gritted his teeth at the ache that was now radiating up his arm, his pulse racing as he knew that he needed to make a phone call.

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The Thunder Rolls

“What the hell have I done?” Louise said out loud as she turned her pickup truck down the highway towards the first of two places she knew he’d go. Her windshield wipers were on full as she tried to concentrate on the road, her gut instinct telling her the he’d go straight down to Shiloh Lake. Her hands were shaking as she threw her truck around another bend, controlling the tail as it slid on the surface water. She pressed her foot to the floor in a bid to catch him, knowing that no matter how fast she drove, she wouldn’t. Her phone buzzed in her pocket and she pulled it out to check the caller ID. She threw it across the bench seat, it sliding off the other side and underneath. She didn’t want to talk to Matt at all, not quite believing what had happened and her eyes filling up with tears again. She had broken the biggest promise she had ever made, to the nicest man she had ever known. She slammed on the breaks as the road started to turn into dirt, knowing that her rear wheel drive would be no match for the muddy road ahead. She flung open her door, slamming it hard before racing down to the clearing, eyes wide and burning with tears as she searched for his truck. She splashed through puddles as a streak of lightning lit the sky and she finally found it, the driver’s door open and lights still on. Her heart was beating in her chest as she stopped and held onto the bed of his truck. She didn’t care that she was soaked to the bone. She just had to find him. She moved her hair out of her face as she looked around, the rain deafening but not quite managing to disguise a splash in the distance.

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“Vaughn!” She shouted as she raced over to the clearing, digging her heels in and stopping suddenly as she saw him standing at the water’s edge. His frame was hazy, but she saw his arm pull back before throwing a stone, it skimming across the water before losing its momentum and splashing into the lake. “Louise.” She only just managed to catch him say her name, and if it hadn’t had been for the light breeze, she wouldn’t have heard it at all. She started to walk over to him slowly, watching as the water dripped off his hat and down his arms. “Please look at me.” She knew that a fire raged inside him and that he would be hurting more than he ever had. “Why?” He didn’t turn around when she reached him. “Please.” She touched the top of his arm with her hand, attempting to pull him around to face her, but having no luck. “I can’t.” He bowed his head and Louise had to look away to stop the tears again. “Vaughn, please. Just look at me.” “Okay, fine.” He turned to face her, water flicking off the brim of his hat. His voice had changed and her heart jumped as she saw the outrage in his eyes. “Happy now?” “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean-” She stammered. “But you did, Louise.” He took a step towards her, his Stetson only inches away from covering her head. Her knees weakened as she took a step back to compensate, thunder echoing around them. “How could you?” “He cornered me.” She was frightened and upset, and she knew he could see it. But as another flash lit the sky and reflected in his eyes, he took another step towards her anyway.

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“I was there Louise. I watched you.” His eyes burnt into hers, more intense than they had ever been. “I couldn’t move him away.” She went to raise her hand to his arm again, but he reached up and took hold of her wrist. “You didn’t even try.” “Trust me I did.” She looked down at her wrist and tried to twist it free. “Vaughn, you’re hurting me.” “How can I trust you?” He said as he let go of her and brushed past her. She watched as his figure started to disappear in the downpour, making his way back to his truck. There had been a slight quiver in his voice that he had obviously tried to cover over, and she wondered whether it was because he was heart-broken or soaked through. She knew deep down that it was both. “Vaughn. Please just hear me out.” She shouted as she sprinted to him. She took hold of his arm, pulling him around to face her. Her back was no longer to the water but rather the tree that he had stood against the first night they had kissed. “I told him I didn’t want to. I promise I did.” “That’s just the problem Louise.” His eyes were aflame as he backed her up, a crack of thunder letting loose again. “Promises don’t seem to mean much to you, do they?” She gasped as she hit the tree, his hands resting on its wet trunk and boxing her in. “Of course they do.” Her voice shook. “Apparently not. I go an’ pour my heart out to you an’ this is what I get? Huh?” He said it through gritted teeth and Louise couldn’t help but fill with tears all over again.

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“I’m sorry.” She sobbed. “If I could go back and change it I would.” She bowed her head, the water pouring off the brim of his hat and running into her hair. “He wouldn’t let me go.” “I’m in love with you Louise, doesn’t that mean anythin’?” His eyes were a little softer as she looked back up at him, it obvious that seeing her on the brink of breaking down stung him. “You know it does. How could it not?” “Then why go an’ do what y’all did? An’ don’t tell me otherwise ‘cause I was standin’ right there.” He moved his eyes from hers and took a deep breath. “D’ya know how much that hurt?” “No, but I can guess.” She searched his eyes with hers, not sure of what he’d do next. He was so close that she wanted him to kiss her and forget about Matt, but she knew he wouldn’t. “You’d be wrong.” He moved his left hand from the tree and cupped her face, making her flinch. “I’m so sorry.” She closed her eyes as a tear fell, his hand warm against her cheek. “How do I know that?” He whispered over the sound of the rain as it hit the leafs above them. “I care about you.” She opened her eyes slowly and noticed that he had moved a little closer. His body wasn’t quite touching hers, but it was close enough to make her pulse race, her body already shaking. “How can you after what you’ve done?” His hat was over her head and she shrunk down a little, her hands flat against the tree. “I swear to God I do.”

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“You don’t-” That’s when his gaze fell to her chest, Louise knowing he’d finally seen the dainty silver cross on its chain around her neck. He moved his hand from her face and gently held the cross in his open palm, water filling his cupped hand just enough to cover it. She looked down to where his eyes had fallen. “I normally hide it.” “You didn’t wear it Thursday.” His eyes had become soft, them meeting hers as she looked back up at him, as he released the necklace. “I took it off when you dimmed the lights and went into the kitchen. It was in my jeans pocket.” “Why?” She bowed her head. “Because. Old habit I guess.” She lifted her crystal blue gaze back to Vaughn’s. “I never wanted to hurt you.” She waited for a response, searching his eyes and unsure of his next move. “I don’t know whether to be upset or angry with you.” He searched her face as he moved his hand to her neck, a bolt of lightning streaking across the sky over the lake. “I just know that I find it so hard to do either.” “Vaughn.” Thunder rumbled as the rain came down heavier through the leafs of the tree. She felt him step towards her again, his drenched body now resting against hers and making her gasp. A mix of emotions flashed across her eyes before he gave in, and shutting his, kissed her. She was unsure about the kiss, but surrendered to him anyway. He was gentle and courteous as he moved his tongue over hers, his hand on her neck moving up to tenderly brush the strands of hair out of her face. Another tear rolled down her cheek as she took hold of his shirt and held him too her, rain splashing onto her arms where his hat didn’t quite cover them.

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His hand moved from the tree to her shoulder before he pushed himself away from her. “I can’t do this.” He said as he took a couple of steps backwards before turning and walking back to his truck, leaving Louise to watch him. She slumped against the tree, the warmth of his body quickly fading as the rain took its place. As she saw the headlights of his pickup truck disappear she bought her hands to her face and finally let go. She slid down the tree into a crouch, tears rolling down her cheeks as she cried harder than she ever had.

*

*

*

She was resting her forehead on the steering wheel, her flow of tears finally starting to dry as she listened to the rain beating on the roof. She had been by the tree for another half an hour after he had left her alone, only having moved into her pickup as she turned cold. She had spent the last hour in the cab of her truck trying to calm herself down so that she could think straight, not that it was helping. Her heart was still pounding as her hands and knees shook. Her breathing was still stammered as she drew in shallow breaths. End. That’s it. I’ve lost him. She thought as she started the V8 and turned her truck around, not knowing where it was she was aiming for but driving anyway. She knew it would happen, and soon enough, with her eyes burning and wipers on full, she had her foot to the floor with no care of whether she made it out alive. She soon realised that she was almost at Vaughn’s and without thinking, spun the wheel and flew up his drive to see if he had gone home. She wanted more than anything to work this out.

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She couldn’t see his truck as she drove up to his house and so carried on up to the barn where his cars where kept. She spun back on herself when she noticed he wasn’t there either, a sinking feeling hitting her hard. She whacked her steering wheel with her hand as she made her way back down his drive, her eyes now dry and focused. She skidded onto the highway with her foot pressed down hard on the gas pedal in an attempt to find him. Her hands were still shaking as the rain pounded on her windshield quicker than it was being wiped away, the road a blur. She didn’t pay any attention to highway and road signs as she drove, street and head lights racing past her. Driver beeped their horns, surprised at her speed and her reckless driving. Everything in her head was fuzzy, the only thing not being was her thought of finding Vaughn. And if she couldn’t find him, she’d drop her pickup in a ditch and pray that he’d visit her in hospital. She heard her phone buzz, snapping her back to reality. She bent down trying to find it under the bench seat with the thought that it might just be Vaughn, attempting to keep her eyes on the road as she did. She fiddled around, feeling it between her fingers before it slipped away as she swerved to miss a trucker in the oncoming lane, her heart jumping at the near miss. She sat up straight and, not knowing why, checked her rear view just in time to see the pickup behind accelerate, smashing into her. “What the hell?” She pressed her foot to the floor again, adrenalin pumping as she pulled away. She watched as the driver switched on his high beams, almost blinding her. She watched the truck speed up again with wide eyes before moving across into the opposite lane, trying to shake it off her tail, but having no luck. Water splashed over the road as she swerved back into her lane to avoid hitting another car, just managing to catch the tail before it spun out. She pulled her truck back

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straight just as the driver of the pickup behind her hit the gas and smashed into her again. This time Louise couldn’t hold her truck straight and took her hands off the wheel, covering her face with a scream. Her truck careered down the bank on the opposite side of the highway, the impact knocking her unconscious.

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Alone

My head hurts. Was the first thought to roll around her head as she slowly came to, not quite being able to open her eyes due to the ache in her left temple. She tried to move her hand to her head to make out the damage, but as she did, noticed that both of her wrists were tied together. She felt another rope around her torso, her heart starting to thump in her chest. “What the-?” she started to say as she forgot about the pain and opened her eyes, blinking a couple of times so that she could adjust to the very dim lighting. She was sitting on a chair, she knew that much, but who had done this and where she was being a completely different matter. She tried to move her feet but couldn’t, and as she pulled to try and free them, a pain shot down her leg. She gritted her teeth, her right knee on fire. “Where the hell am I?” She sighed as she realised she couldn’t move, and if she did, she’d be straight onto her side, possibly breaking something as the ground felt solid. She tried to wriggle and see if there was any slacken the rope around her chest, but instead felt a searing pain in her left side, leaving her breathless. Oh dear God, my ribs are broken. She tried to regulate her breathing as her senses slowly adjusted. The dirt on the floor slowly came into focus as she tried to move her left foot, but the rope was too tight around the ankle of her boot and there was no give. “Okay, Louise. Think.” She sniffed as a tear rolled down her cheek, not wanting whoever had done this to see her as weak. As her eyes began to focus, she moved them slowly around the room, trying to take in every piece of detail that she could. There was a door just behind her on

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the right wall, only just close enough for her to see it out of her peripheral vision. The wall in front of her seemed too far away to make out, but she knew it was there all the same. She saw that the wall to her left was blank, nothing on it except long shadows that were being cast by the dull light bulb overhead. Her eyes grew more accustomed with each minute that passed and she noticed that there was no sound at all other than her own breathing. She also noticed a small red light in the corner at the far end of the room, whatever it was attached to being on the ceiling. A video camera. She exclaimed in her head, not wanting anyone to hear exactly what she was thinking. Louise had watched enough horror and thriller movies in her time to know that murderers and criminals prayed on their victims’ weaknesses, and she was not going to let that happen to her. Unless of course, the person that was doing this was her weakness. Then that was a whole new ball game. As her panic started to wear off she felt a new throbbing in her right cheek and bent her head down to her hands so that she could gently feel the damage. She pulled back when the slightest touch of the fingertips made the pain explode in both her cheek and her ribs. Broken. She sighed as she looked down at her jeans, the same stains over them from her working on her Camaro. The accident. She suddenly understood how she had arrived here. Her thoughts moved back to the man she had betrayed, tears starting to sting her eyes again as his name whispered in her head. Vaughn. She thought about the kiss with Matt and cursed herself for letting him corner her like that, her having known since the first night she had gone out with

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him that he had wanted her. Yes, she had to admit that it was a rush for two men to crave you, but nothing compared to the emotions and the feelings of that Thursday night with Vaughn. Knowing that it all meant more than just lust or sex was a feeling that you just couldn’t describe. A replay of Vaughn’s kisses and light touches rolled through her head, his deep brown eyes wanting to show her everything she had missed over the past years. She bowed her head knowing that she might never see him again. That was when it hit her. That truck had spots. Oh my God, that truck had spots. She shook her head, not quite believing that Vaughn could have done this. He can’t. He wouldn’t. She tried to struggle free again, her whole body tense as she tried to ignore the pains radiating from her injuries. She cried out as she slumped back into the wooden chair, the thundering pains getting the better of her. This is hopeless. She thought as she looked up to the ceiling to try and stop the flow of tears, it being a relief to finally get her hair out of her face. I wonder how long I’ve been here for. She had a feeling that it couldn’t be any more than an hour or so, and looking back down to what she was wearing, knew that she must have been dragged from her truck and bought straight here. Come on Louise, try to remember. She shut her eyes and tried to focus on the last few hours, skipping through each memory almost as if it was a movie. She finally got to where she was driving down the highway, just swerving to miss the truck on the opposite side of the road as she searched for her cell phone underneath the seat. Damn. I really could use that about now. She thought as she carried on, replaying the events, but trying to see extra things she might have missed. The rain. The headlights. The truck behind me. Headlights disappear. Smash. She opened her

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eyes quickly. The beams were low on the lights. Realisation hit and she felt relief. The truck wasn’t lifted. It wasn’t Vaughn. Thank God. Then who the hell was it? She looked around the room again, trying to find some more clues as to where she was when, out the corner of her left eye she saw a frame standing up against the wall. If she hadn’t turned her head a little more she would have missed it all together, her recognising the gold leaf antique almost instantly. Chris. She sighed as she bought her head back around, her eyes starting to hurt from straining them sideways. She knew that he was obsessive, him proving that by sitting outside the store and following her, but never in her right mind would she have thought he’d do something like this. Now I know I’m not going to get out of here without a fight . She sighed again before wincing at the sharp pain in her side. Maybe if I talk to him, he’d let me go. Her mind started to work properly now, focusing on ideas to help her get out of this dank place. Right Louise, number one, you could talk to him. Number two, you could try to fight him, but with the condition you’re in you haven’t got a leg to stand on . Literally. Number three. Play nice until you have the freedom to run. Or number four. Sit and wait on your ass until someone finally misses you. Chris was terrible at reading people, and she knew that he wouldn’t be able to tell what she was thinking by looking though a television screen. I know what he won’t expect. She smiled smugly to herself as it dawned on her that Chris would probably be expecting her to stay quiet and be trying to wiggle her way free, hence the camera. He won’t be expecting me to make a hell of a lot of noise, would he? She nearly laughed, but just managed to catch it in time. “Chris, you shit, let me out of here!” She screamed, biting her bottom lip when she realised she’d just cursed. “And thank you very much for totalling my truck ,

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asshole!” She was trying to make it sound almost as if she had expected it, and knew that it would take him by surprise. She waited for a reply for what seemed like an age, but there was no sound other than the ones she was making. No footsteps, no shouting, no breaths that weren’t hers. Instead it was eerily silent, the creeping shadows on the wall starting to play with her mind. Her ears pricked up and listened for any minute sound, an image of Dakota suddenly popping into her head. Oh my God, Dakota. She had totally forgotten about her cat, but gave a faint smile when she realised she had everything she needed. It was lucky that her food and water bowls were always topped up and the cat flap left open for her on the back door. “Chris! I know you’re here somewhere!” She shouted again before looking down at her boots and wondering whether she could push herself to her feet and shuffle to the door. She shook her head as she threw the thought from her mind, knowing that her muscles and her knee weren’t up for it at the minute. I’ll just have to sit here and recuperate for a while. She thought with a sigh as she twisted her wrists to see if she could pull them free. She winced as she pulled a little too hard and sprained her left one, cursing herself for being so stupid. Her heart suddenly started to race as she heard footsteps coming towards the door, her breathing becoming erratic as they grew louder before stopping dead outside. She held her breath as her gaze fell on the bottom of door, the shadow of two feet peeking underneath. Her eyes grew wide, not knowing what to expect, the shadows not moving. She waited, not daring to speak, the courage from fifteen minutes ago disappearing into thin air as the situation became more and more real by the second.

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“Chris?” Her voice shook as she said it, knowing that he was the only person that it could be. She heard the boots shuffle on the other side of the door and saw the shadows disappear, obviously into another room. Maybe it isn’t him. Louise thought as she kept her gaze on the bottom of the door for another minute, waiting to see if he came back. So I’m just supposed to sit here and look pretty then? She slumped into the chair again, not being able to escape the image of Vaughn as he floated back to the forefront of her mind. How his eyes were so full of anger when he’d finally turned around to face her and how they had grown soft when he had seen the cross she wore. He’d almost looked upset when she had told him she’d purposefully taken it off that Thursday night. She thought about how he had kissed her against the tree, and how different it was from the forcefulness of Matt’s. How Vaughn’s lips always seemed more than perfect and how his body fitted to hers just right. The way his thumb felt as it brushed her cheek, and how his hand fitted just right on her neck. How his beautiful brown eyes still seemed incredible even though they were full of anger and betrayal. What have I done? She bowed her head as her tears fell again, her emotions getting the better of her as she sat tied to the chair. I’m so tired. She just wanted to lay her head on the floor and fall asleep, but knew that it was impossible without hurting something else on her body, and Lord knew she was in enough pain as it was. The adrenalin had completely worn off, giving way to throbs and aches that were getting almost too agonising to bear. Sure enough, as she shut her eyes and drifted into unconsciousness.

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Danger Zone

“Shelby, can you try Louise again. She ain’t answerin’ when I call off the office phone. Might be better if you use your cell.” Bryan said popping his head out of the ‘Staff Only’ door in the drug store. Shelby and Bryan hadn’t seen or heard from Louise in two days, and it was unlike Louise not to phone. Usually if something was the matter, or even if she was going to only be five minutes late, she would call in. Shelby had called Dale yesterday for just a general chat before he had told her that Vaughn had disappeared off the face of the Earth. She couldn’t help but think that Louise had maybe run off with him for a long weekend, but sense kicking in she knew that Louise would at least text her if she was going to do anything like that. “She ain’t answerin’ Bryan. I’ve tried her a million times already.” Shelby said to him as she took her cell phone out of her pocket again and dialled Louise’s number. She hung up when there was no answer. “This is hopeless. Where d’ya think she could be?” Bryan walked over to meet Shelby by the counter. “I don’t know honey. Let’s just keep tryin’.” “I’ve got such a bad feelin’ ‘bout all o’ this. Real bad.” Shelby’s eyes were worried, and Bryan obviously knew exactly how she felt, both of the girls like daughters to him. “She’s a tough little cookie. An’ I’m sure she’s just fine.” Bryan tried to smile, but Shelby knew it wasn’t just her who had a bad feeling about the entire situation. “Let me try Dale. See if he can ask the boys if they’ve seen her.”

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“Good idea. I think I’ll make us a coffee.” Bryan said before walking back though the ‘Staff Only’ door, it slamming shut behind him. “Hey honey.” Shelby said when Dale answered. “Any news yet?” “Hey pretty lady. No. Nothin’ yet.” Dale was speaking quietly and Shelby knew that he must be busy, but it was obvious that he was happy to speak to her. “I’m gettin’ so worried. I know she was workin’ on her car late Wednesday. She text me ‘round half nine. I just hope some loony ain’t been over an’ snatched her.” “She was? Well, I’m sure she’d crack some loony’s head with a ratchet if they tried that darlin’. I tell you what though, Matt has been actin’ pretty strange these last couple o’ days.” Dale had a smile in his voice still, but Shelby noticed it turn a little sour when he mentioned Matt. “Really? Think he knows somethin’?” She leant her elbows on the counter as she spoke. “I dunno. Think he thinks that no one’s noticin’, but even Terry’s picked up on it. I think there’s somethin’ he ain’t tellin’ us, but then again he could just be in a mood ‘cause o’ his wrist.” “Yeah, I guess. Can ya just keep an eye on him sweetheart, let me know?” A customer had just walked through the door, and she knew she had to get off the phone. “Awww honey, you called me sweetheart. Yeah, I’ll let ya know. Customer just walked in huh?” He had a smile in his voice that lifted her. “Yeah, I gotta go. Bye.” “Shelby?” He had a quirky tone to his voice that she just loved. “Yeah?”

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“I’ll come over tonight.” “You’re bad.” She giggled down the phone. “See ya later.” The call disconnected and her smile faded, her thoughts returning to Louise as she dropped her phone into her pocket. She stared out of the glass door, wishing that the ‘Closed’ on the flip sign was facing the other way.

*

*

*

“Shelby huh?” Terry raised his eyebrows as Dale stood up on his stirrups and placed his cell phone back in his pocket. “Yeah. Sweet ain’t she?” Dale smiled as he sat back down in his saddle, Levi shifting slightly. “An’ no, we ain’t gone that far yet if you’re wonderin’ such things.” “If you say so man. She askin’ ‘bout Louise an’ Vaughn?” Terry had started to move along the fence line again, Dale following suit. They had been out on the horses checking the fencing all day, Matt being back at the main buildings doing light work and Tyler fixing some of the farming equipment that had broken down a couple of days before. “Hey, don’t knock my girl.” “She your girl now then, huh?” Terry stayed focused on the fencing as they trotted along, Dale double checking from behind. “What else could she be?” Dale smiled as he thought about the takeout him and Shelby had shared the other night. The fact that they hadn’t moved from the couch until the early hours of the morning made him smile. “Dang, everyone seems to be gettin’ some other than me. How’s that fair?” Terry whined.

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“Even Vaughn. Now how does that make ya feel?” Dale laughed, knowing that it would hit a nerve. “Don’t remind me.” Terry rolled his eyes as he leant on the pommel of his saddle. “Hey, just thinkin’. You don’t think Matt has gone an’ got in the way o’ them two d’ya? Might be why they’ve disappeared an’ Matt’s bein’ all moody an’ such.” “You really think he’d be stupid enough to do that again? He may pretend to hate Vaughn, but you know he’s wantin’ him to forgive him so they can be how they were an’ all. Plus, Louise ain’t the sort o’ girl to do that . I saw the way she looked at Vaughn the first day she got here, ain’t no mistakin’ that look for anythin’ other than infatuation.” It was obvious that Terry didn’t want to believe Matt would be that stupid again. A leopard never changes his spots. “That’s just it. The way Matt looks at Louise dogs me, ya know? Like when we all went for pizza? An’ that house party she had? You didn’t see ‘em when they were in the basement.” Dale frowned. “Basement? I was gone man. You never said anythin’ ‘bout anythin’.” Terry frowned, wondering why Dale hadn’t said a word to anyone. “Didn’t see it as my place to say. But Shelby went on up to bed an’ left Louise to say ‘night to Matt. Anyhow, what they don’t know is that I was watchin’ ‘em.” Terry had turned slightly and raised his eyebrows. “Shelby asked me to keep an eye. She don’t trust Matt one bit.” “Okay. Carry on.” Terry turned back and carried on watching the fence line. “Anyhow, the atmosphere between them two was hot . I mean, y’all could cook wieners on that fire. I swear he’d have gone for it, but I think he knew I was watchin’. No kiddin’.”

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“He wouldn’t.” “Well, I’m just tellin’ ya what I saw. An’ what I saw was just that. At one point he weren’t even an inch away from her Terry.” Dale said it matter-of-factly. “Louise didn’t move away then? ‘Cause ya can’t go an’ blame this all on Matt.” Terry looked over his shoulder as he rested his left hand on his leg. “That ain’t fair.” “I ain’t doin’ anythin’ o’ the sort. But from where I was standin’ he was too close for her to move, if ya know where I’m comin’ from.” “Yeah, I know.” Terry slowed Redeye down so that Dale could catch up to him, moving to the right a little so that they were alongside each other. “You don’t think he’d, ya know. Sneak over to hers late one night, catch her off guard?” Terry shook his head. “What the heck am I sayin’, o’ course he wouldn’t.” Dale slowly turned to face him. “Didn’t he say he got back Wednesday night?” “Yeah, why?” Terry looked back to Dale, the expression on his face sending a chill down his spine. “Late.” “Yeah. Your point, Dale?” Terry frowned at his friend. “Then why on Earth didn’t he let us know? Usually does no matter what time. I remember when he woke me up at three in the mornin’ once. Instead he just turns up Thursday for work, no words ‘sept what happened.” Dale raised his eyebrows and Terry understood that his friend may be onto something. “Right again. Shoot Dale, what if he has, huh?” “Shelby did say Louise was workin’ late on Wednesday in the garage, even after we left.” Dale raised his eyebrows again, Terry looking back in disbelief. “He wouldn’t, man.” Terry bowed his head before changing his mind. “He would.”

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“Hence why he didn’t call.” “Shoot.” He moved his gaze away from Dales before whispering to himself. “Dang it Matt, you whore.” “Terry, I think it’s ‘bout time me an’ Matt had a little chat.”

*

*

*

Vaughn was sitting in the bed of his truck, his knees bent and his back against the back glass of the cab as he looked out over the fields that stretched towards the horizon. He had been driving for just over five hours and had finally reached where he wanted to be, driving a good few miles off road to reach an old tree he used to play around as a young boy. He didn’t know why he had driven there, his mind being a complete blank on the journey with, it seemed, no purpose of getting to anywhere in particular at all. He hadn’t wanted to speed, which was unusual for him, and he hadn’t wanted to play music as loud as his speakers would let him. Instead he just drove. He was that blank that he even ran a couple of red lights without realising, the horns of other drivers snapping him back to reality, even if only for a mere second or two. Normally he liked days like today. The sun streaming through the branches of the tree he was sitting under with a light cool breeze rustling the leafs every now and again. The sort of day that would be perfect to share with someone you love or even your closest friends. But today was different. He didn’t quite know whether to be angry or upset or whether to believe that Matt had forced himself onto Louise. From where he stood it had looked like she was enjoying herself. He thumped his foot on the bed of the

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truck as he remembered, raising his hand to his forehead as he got that all too familiar sinking feeling in his stomach. He hadn’t been able to go back to his house after he had left Louise by the lake, and instead had headed west towards Opp. He had found a motel and had stayed a couple of nights there, not that he had managed to get any sleep or forget those images. Every time he had closed his eyes they had replayed in his head, it eventually enough to cause him to smoke his way through three packets of cigarettes and get through a whole bottle of Jack Daniels just to numb the pain. The ironic part of it was that whoever was in the room next to him was obviously having a hard time of it too and had being playing sad songs late into each night. Louise. He thought as he looked at the space next to him, his heart skipping a beat as it finally dawned on him that everything that had happened wasn’t just a dream and that it was perfectly real. He stared at the space for the longest time before he felt a vibration in his Wranglers pocket, a voice inside his head telling him to check it just in case it was her. He laid his leg out flat so that he could reach it, clicking on the screen so that he could read the information message. ’17 missed calls. 2 voice mail. 3 SMS messages.’ He sighed knowing that it would be Matt and Louise. He clicked on the missed calls and scrolled through the names that had called him, seven being Matt, four being Shelby, three being Dale, two being Terry and the last one being Jerry. “Why can’t they just leave me alone?” He said out loud as he clicked to check his voice mails, the first one being Matt. “Vaughn, answer the phone. Please. C’mon man, I didn’t want this to happen. If I could I’d take it back man, come on. She loves you, you know she does. If

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anythin’ just blame this on me, not her . I know I’ve messed up in the past, but this ain’t like that, I promise you. Ring me when ya get this, pleas-” Matt’s tone was panicked and upset, but at this minute in time Vaughn couldn’t care less . He deleted the message before it finished and moved on to the next one. “Vaughn, it’s Shelby. Louise has disappeared an’ no one can reach her. I’m really worried. I don’t know if somethin’s gone on with you two, but please just ring me. I’m goin’ outta my mind here. Thanks in advance sugar.” Everyone’s worried ‘bout Louise, but not me. Ain’t that just a peach. He frowned slightly as he thought for a minute. She ain’t rang at all. He then clicked onto the three SMS messages to see who had text him, Matt, Shelby and Dale being the three unread ones. Strange ‘cause I thought she would. He opened the one from Matt with a sigh. ‘V. I care man. Neva wanted 2 hurt u agen. Pls ring. M.’ But you did. He deleted it and moved onto the next one. ‘Vaughn. Shelby. Hope u got my voice. Still no word from Lou n I’m so worried. Where r u? Txt me when ur free, k?’ This is gettin’ weird. He thought as he flicked to the last one, his heart racing a little as he knew Dale was pretty hot on guessing what was what. ‘Where the hell R U V? M’s lookin’ like HS N ain’t sayin’ a word 2 no1 N no1’s heard 4rom L. Sumthins up, I no it. Let me nowhere U R otherwise I’ll B cumin’ lookin’. N don’t think I don’t know UR hideaways. D.’ Another one sayin’ Louise has disappeared. He dropped his cell phone next to him before glancing down at it. Maybe I should ring her. He stared at the picture he used as the background, it being the plaid pattern of Louise’s shirt she had worn when he had taken her to the barn dance.

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She hasn’t called me, so why the hell should I call he?. The tone in his head changed as he pushed the phone away from him, the image of Matt kissing her against the wall in the garage flooding into his head again. He took his hat off, throwing it towards the end of the truck bed before he ran his hands through his hair, taking in a deep breath. His thoughts were still on Louise. How can she tell me she loved me then do this, huh? He thought to himself as he bent his knee again and crossed his arms, elbows on his knees and forehead resting on his forearms. His eyes were starting to sting with tears, and finally after two days he let them flow, not bothering to wipe them away, but instead watching them splash onto the floor of the bed. God, why is this happenin’ to me again? The image in his head turned to the silver cross he had seen around Louise’s neck . He hadn’t expected her to wear one at all, but it lit his heart that she did. Damn you Matt. Distant memories appeared in his head of a time when he and Matt were best of friends, laughing at something he had said as they hauled bales of hay on the ranch in the middle of summer. He sniffed and finally wiped the tears from his eyes with the heels of his hands before resting his chin on his forearms. He had always loved sitting under this tree when he was younger, and it held a lot of memories. Some that he was fond of, some that he wasn’t, but all of them made him smile every time he returned , even now. He looked up into the branches of the tree, following the closest right back to the trunk, a weary smile gracing his lips for a few seconds. He knew exactly what he’d find, and stood up to take a closer look. He held onto the branch as he put one

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foot up onto the side of the bed so he could lean in a little closer, and that’s when he saw it. Scribed into the wood of the trunk were the words ‘Vee N Tee RTTE’, and he couldn’t help but think back to his childhood friend, Teddy, both of them best friends and ‘rebels till the end’. Louise would love this place. The happy memory faded and he moved to sit on the tailgate, his left leg hanging over the edge. It was starting to get late, and dusk was slowly setting in, the tree being on a slight hill and making the sky look amazing. He sighed as his eyes started to sting again at the sight, knowing that if Louise had been there with him, it wouldn’t have matched her beauty at all.

*

*

*

I cannot be doing with sitting on this chair for much longer, I know that much. My ass has gone numb and everything. Louise thought, having just woken herself up from her sleep. My head hurts, my knee looks like a basketball and my side. Oh God, it hurts. She winced as she shifted slightly, a sharp pain radiating up her ribcage again. I haven’t heard any footsteps. I wonder where he is. She was a light sleeper at the best of times, even when she passed out, but she was sure that if she had heard him move around outside the door she would have woken up. She listened hard, watching the light at the bottom of the door for any shadows, when suddenly it swung open. Louise had to squint against the light that made the figure a silhouette, but even though she couldn’t see his face, she knew it was Chris. His stance was more than enough to give him away. “Well, I see you’re finally awake.” He said as he locked the door behind him and entered the room.

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“Well, I see nothing has really changed.” She spat at him, biting her tongue when he was close enough to be towering over her. He could squash you like a bug Louise, so shut the hell up. “Don’t test me Louise. Just so happens you’re a little stuck where you are, so don’t test me one bit.” He placed his right hand on her thigh and left on the chair back as he leant into her, his face only inches from hers. “I was gonna clean you up, but I think ya look just fine as you are. Unless, o’ course, you’re real good to me, then I may just run you a bath an’ get out some clean clothes.” “How can I be nice to someone that keeps me tied to a chair in a basement?” She said, the emotions in her eyes skipping between anger and fear. “That’s for your own good.” He smiled lightly before kissing her hard on the cheek. She tried to pull away slightly but it hurt her too much to do so. “What sort of joke is that?” She couldn’t stop the words before they came out. “Don’t make me angry Louise. Ya know what happens when you make me angry.” “Okay, okay. But did you ever think I might need the restroom at some point?” She had a softer tone to her voice, hoping that he’d untie her, even if it did mean just using the bathroom for a minute or so. “Yeah.” His smile reached his haunting brown eyes and sent a shiver down her back. “That’s why I plumbed up that bathroom that we were gonna have down here. It’s behind you. Want me to untie you so you can use it?” His smile was starting to give her the creeps, but she didn’t let on. Instead she smiled back and tried to keep her eyes from becoming hard. “Please.”

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“I give ya five minutes, Lou, no more.” He untied the knots in each of the ropes, laying them down neatly on the floor almost as if he didn’t want to forget which one was which. She slowly stood up from the chair as he took a step back. “Want help?” He was trying to be nice, but Louise wasn’t going to bite. Not this time anyway. “I’m fine.” She said through clenched teeth as she started to make her way towards the back of the room, trying to hide the extreme amount of pain that she was actually in. “Light’s just inside the door.” He said, Louise knowing that he was watching her as she shuffled to the door and flicked on the light. It hurt her eyes with how bright it was compared to the one in the other room. She had to raise her arm in front of her eyes before she shut the door behind her. “Bastard.” She said under her breath as she ran the water in the sink before inching down her jeans and lowing herself to the toilet slowly, not quite realising how desperately she had needed to go until now. Holy mother, my side! She screamed in her head as she finished, flushing the toilet and standing back up gently. She moved over to the sink that was now running with warm water, and placed the plug in the drain to let it fill up. He’s even put a mirror in here. She thought as she glanced up from the water and inspected the damage on her face. Oh hell. She gently ran her fingers over her cheek, wincing before she lifted her hair to have a look at the cut that was on her forehead. She sighed before turning off the tap and moving her hands to the sink of water, splashing her face to try and get rid of some of the blood and grease that covered it. After another minute, and finally feeling a little refreshed, Louise removed the plug from the sink. She stepped back slightly and rolled up her camisole, her shirt

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already being undone. She gritted her teeth as she rolled it as high as it would go before looking in the mirror at the green and purple mess of her ribs. No wonder it hurts so damn much. She said as she sighed and released her top, guiding it back down slightly until it sat just right. “Louise. Time’s up.” She heard Chris boom through the door, surprising her slightly, but not enough to make her jump. She opened the door, and flicking off the light switch, slowly made her way back to where Chris was standing, rope in his hands. “Please don’t tie me back up Chris.” She didn’t want to plead with him, but she felt she had to. “I’ll be good, I promise.” “No ya won’t, ‘cause you never are.” He took a couple of steps towards her and she froze to the spot, knowing that she couldn’t run, but her instinct telling her to anyway. “An’ I heard that remark.” Louise’s heart started to pound in her chest so hard she thought she was going to faint. “What remark?” She knew she shouldn’t have, and she felt the back of his hand connect with her face as soon as she said it, her left cheek and eye exploding in pain. “Don’t you dare Louise!” He shouted before taking her chin in his hand, pulling her face so that she was looking at him. “Now look what ya made me do, huh?” “I didn’t aim it at you. I promise I didn’t.” She whimpered as he kept hold of her, his fingers digging into her face. “How do I know that? Huh?” There was a fire in his eyes that she had dreaded seeing, and all she could think to do was try to stay calm.

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“Because I know you do.” She winched as he squeezed the bottoms of her cheeks before flinging her head to one side and letting her go. “Please don’t tie me up.” “I ain’t gonna fall for this wounded lamb shit Louise.” “Please Chris. It’s not often I beg you, but I am now. Please.” She tried to emphasise just how hurt she was, and from the look in his eyes it was having an effect on him. “The last thing I want is to be tied up Chris. My ribs are broken, and it hurts so bad.” “Don’t bother Lou, it ain’t gonna work on me this time.” He moved around behind her and all she could do was wait as he took her wrists and bound them again, this time behind her back. “At least don’t tie me to the chair.” She looked over her shoulder and into his eyes, trying to look helpless as he lifted his gaze from her wrists. “You’re askin’ a lot. Don’t really think it’s your place to be doin’ that, d’you?” He was starting to boil and this was the last thing she wanted. “Please Chris. I’m only asking.” She almost whispered. “Okay.” He took hold of the rope and pulled her over to the left wall. “Sit.” “What? I thought you said-” “I’m still tyin’ your ankles. I don’t trust you, not yet anyhow.” He said as she stood against the wall. “Now, sit.” “I’m not a dog Chris.” She snapped, cursing herself as she realised what she had just done. Stupid idiot. Shut the hell up. “I’ll let that one slide.” He took a couple of steps over to one of the other ropes and picked it up before making his way back to her. “Now. Floor.”

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“Okay. But you’re going to have to help me.” She said, not quite being able to stand the thought of him touching her, but knowing that she’d be in a lot more pain if he didn’t. “Well, that makes a change, Lou. You askin’ for my help.” He smiled, sending a chill down her spine again as he leant into her. “It hurts too much for me to do it myself.” She shrunk back against the wall. “I think I’m going to need some pain killers.” “What ya gonna give me in return?” “What do you want?” She was so close to saying something else, but bit her tongue, not wanting another whack. He smiled again. A disgusting, sick smile that made her want to vomit. “I’m gonna pick you up an’ put you on the floor.” She braced herself as he bent down, one arm underneath her knees and the other around her waist, lifting her off the floor before kneeling down and placing her gently on the dusty concrete. “Don’t tie my ankles. Please. It’s not like I can get up now anyway.” Louise said as he shifted down to her feet and forced her ankles together, the heels of her boots knocking against each other. “I ain’t fallin’ for that, ‘cause I know ya can bare the pain.” He looked back at her, his eyes quickly filling with anger as he tied the knot. “I ain’t stupid Louise, so don’t think I am.” “I didn’t mean it like that. Really I didn’t.” She knew that if she said the wrong thing, that that could be it, and no matter how much it hurt her mentally to apologise to him, she did anyway. “I’m sorry.” “Good.” He shuffled back over to her, still on his knees. “Now. I think you owe me.”

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“Okay. But what do you want?” She was scared, not quite knowing exactly what he wanted from her. She just knew that whatever it was didn’t involve clothes coming off, and she was more than thankful of that. He moved in closer to her, his eyes filling with a hunger that she hadn’t seen in years, and wished that she wasn’t seeing right now. She didn’t know how to react to him, and all she could do was close her eyes as he reached around the back of her head and pulled her to him, kissing her hard on her lips. “That’ll do for now.” He said as he pulled away and let go of her head. She had to blink to stop the tears that were sitting in her eyes and almost ready to fall. “Chris.” She watched him stand, feeling intimidated at just how high he stood over her. “What now?” He was growing impatient, and Louise knew she had to be quick. “Why did you run me off the road? And why are you doing this to me?” She saw the change in his eyes again. “I just want to know. Please.” She tensed her jaw as he squatted back down on the floor, expecting him to give her a good slap around the face again for the questions. “I needed to get your attention Lou, an’ that was the only way.” He brushed a strand of hair from her face, taking care not to touch her cheek. “An’ ya need to be taught a few lessons Lou. Seems you’ve gone off the rails since ya left me, is all.” He held her gaze. “An’ I think it’s ‘bout time that you an’ me got back together . Ya just need some tweakin’ is all.” He stood then, and started to make his way to the door. “That friend o’ yours. Shelby. She’s a bad influence on you.” “Tweaking?” Louise asked with a shaking voice, not liking the sound of it one bit.

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“Yeah.” He turned back to face her, the light casting his face into an evil glow, chilling her to the bone. “You’ll see.” He turned back to the door and unlocked it, swinging it open and letting the light stream in again before turning back around to face her. “An’ Lou? Don’t start gettin’ up to anythin’ you wouldn’t want me to see.” And with that he disappeared, leaving Louise to listen to his footsteps fade out as she leant against the wall. I am never going to get out of here, am I? She thought as she stared up at the ceiling, wondering if anyone on the outside world was actually starting to miss her. I know Shelby will be worried stupid. She tried to focus on something a little less morbid, but nothing in her mind could make her smile, even slightly. Oh Vaughn, where are you?

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You Do the Math

Vaughn had struggled to sleep again, the images of Louise haunting him to a point where he had taken a long walk just to get some fresh air. He had felt pretty rough after his binge the other night, and couldn’t bring himself to do that again, no matter how much he wanted to drown everything out. He had stayed at a local motel overnight, one he knew only too well from his childhood years. He had been relieved to finally have a long shower and change his clothes, having headed into Tuscaloosa and stopping off at Walmart. He had picked up a couple of things to eat while he was there, taking a couple of bites before throwing everything away, not being able to stomach it. I guess I should head on back pretty soon. Can’t hide out forever Vaughn. He thought to himself as he sat on the edge of the bed, rubbing his hands down his face and trying to snap himself back to reality a little. He had been away for a few days now, and Shelby and Dale had rang him another couple of times each, the voicemails still saying that Louise hadn’t turned up and it was very unlike her. No matter how angry I am with her I can’t help but think this ain’t right. He stood up off the bed and pulled his boots on before glancing at himself in the mirror that was hung over the dresser. He placed his Stetson on his head, pulling it down over his eyes. He picked up his jeans and shirt that were slung over the back of the chair at the side of the dresser, before deciding that he wasn’t too bothered about them and slinging them into the trash. I can always buy new. Not like I’m broke. He stood with his hands on his hips for a second or two before reaching for the room key and heading out of the door, it slamming shut behind him.

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As he walked towards the reception so that he could hand the key back to the desk clerk, his mind wondered to the conversation he had had with his mom the previous night. He had needed to talk to someone about how everything had got the better of him. She was pleased to hear from him, as usual, but knew instantly that something was wrong, as mothers always did. He had retold her the whole story, from start to finish, even though she knew most of the beginning, and, as he had expected, she hadn’t been biased. She had spoken to him for over an hour about him and Louise, giving him advise here and there, and even some uplifting words of wisdom that made him see through his rising hatred. “You’re a strong man baby, an’ you know it. I didn’t raise you to be anythin’ but.” She had said. “From everythin’ you’ve told me ‘bout this gal she ain’t nothin’ like that Cindy, an’ she’s one to hold onto, no matter what life throws you’re way. All animals make mistakes Vee, an’ us people are just animals . Nothin’ more, nothin’ less.” “How can I forgive somethin’ like that mom? I ain’t ever felt like this before, not even with Cindy.” He had replied, close to tears. “Now son, you listen to your mom, an’ you listen good. Love is never easy. Lord knows I’ve made some mistakes in my time that I ain’t proud of. If ya mean what ya say, that her baby blues told you she was tellin’ the truth, there ain’t nothin’ for you to be scared of. She’s lookin’ for an answer just as you are. Relationships are built on honesty baby, an’ she was honest with you. Hell, she even came to find you, an’ you know ninety percent o’ the time they just call.” “Yeah, she did. An’ I know she was. I just don’t get why all this happens to me mom. I knew Matt would worm his way in again, I just knew it. The way he looks at

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her is enough to know. ” He had been more upset than angry, his mom always having that calming effect on him whenever he spoke to her. “Matt ain’t the one you should be worried ‘bout . From all accounts, seems he made this mess, not her an’ not you. You love his woman don’t you?” “Yeah.” “Then worry ‘bout her. Life ain’t ‘bout how fast you run or how high you climb baby, but how well you bounce. You bein’ a bronc rider should know that more than anyone.” “I guess so mom. What do I do? I ain’t got one clue anymore. I’ve been eatin’ myself up for days over this, drivin’ myself crazy.” “Just ‘cause trouble comes visitin’ don’t mean ya have to offer it a place to sit down. By runnin’ you’re doin’ just that Vee, an’ you know it ain’t no good. More often than not the memory is worse than the actual event, only way to get this outta your mind is to go find her. You know everythin’ will be forgiven when she’s back in your arms, so stop fightin’ it.” His mom had a way with words, and he had smiled at her last sentence, knowing she was right. “Why you always right mom?” “’Cause I’m your momma. Now get off this dang phone an’ go on back down to Elba. I know you’re sulkin’ in that motel just down from here. That an’ Annie-May saw your truck doin’ ninety down the highway. ” He’d blushed when she had said it, feeling guilty that he hadn’t stopped by, even if it had been just for a coffee. “Sorry I didn’t pay y’all a visit.” “That’s okay baby, you just make sure you take care o’ yourself an’ when all this is over with, you bring that pretty little lady up to see your mom and Aaron, okay? If them baby blues really are that spectacular, I wanna see ‘em for myself.”

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“Mom.” He had whined, but there was still a smile on his face all the same. “I’ll call you.” “I love ya son. Don’t you forget that.” “Love you too mom.” And with that he had hung up. The brightness that had been in the air faded again, along with his mother’s voice. He’d handed in the key to the clerk behind the desk before making his way out to his truck, pausing with his hand on the door handle, almost as if waiting for someone to tell him he was okay to get in. He finally clicked it open with a sigh, swinging himself into the driver’s seat and heading off back towards Elba. He scoured through the mound of CD’s that were thrown over the bench seat whenever he could take his eyes off the highway. It was going to be another five hours until he arrived, or there abouts, and he wanted something to try and keep his mind from wondering. As he came up to one of the many intersections he was going to come across on his journey, he was thankful for the red light. He put his pickup into ‘Park’ and quickly flicked through the pile, his eyes being drawn to a disc he didn’t quite recognise. There was a star in red marker on the top. Strange. He thought as he replaced the disc that was already in his player, just as the light turned green and he shifted into ‘Drive’. He glanced down at the wording on the player, it saying ‘Reading…’ before a very familiar voice filled the cab of his truck, taking him completely by surprise. “I see you’ve finally found the CD I left for you in your truck.” His eyes grew wide as he listened to Louise, her voice just enough to make him shake a little as his heart beat wildly. “I made this today, obviously, well, it’s Saturday after Thursday if you’re wondering. I’ve put together some songs that make me smile and remind me

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of you, and I hope you like it. And yes, some of them will make you laugh. Anyway, I’m going to shut up now and let you listen.” There was a pause for a couple of seconds. “And Vaughn? I love you. Really.” His heart skipped as she said it, it sounding as if she had been smiling when she had and he imagined a slight blush to rise to her cheeks. She really is somethin’ else. He thought as the first song started to play, his eyes stinging slightly as he listened too closely to some of the lyrics. She came to the front of his mind, her hair glowing as she stood in front of the fire in his family room. What the hell am I gonna say to her? He asked himself as he rested his head on his left hand, his elbow resting on the door panel. I don’t wanna listen to this. He reached towards the stereo, but hesitated slightly over the ‘Eject’ button. Instead he decided to flick through to see what was actually on it, most of the tracks bringing a weary smile to his lips. He stopped as he reached track seven, chuckling and shaking his head as ‘Whatcha Gonna Do With A Cowboy?’ rang through the speakers. He listened to the whole of the song, not quite sure whether he wanted to leave the disc running or not, but deciding just to skip through like he was doing before. There were a couple of other songs on it that grabbed his attention, and he knew that if he had been in a better mood that he would have really enjoyed listening to it. It was just a shame that what had happened had happened, and even though he had taken his mom’s advice, he knew it was never that simple. All of a sudden his phone starting to ring in his pocket, the vibration startling him a little. He turned down the sound on the stereo and checked the caller ID. He saw that it read ‘Dale’, and with a sigh decided it was time to answer it .

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“Dale.” “Finally, Vaughn. Jesus man. Where the hell are you?” He sounded a little anxious, and Vaughn felt his stomach drop. Something told him that all was not okay. “I’m on my way back to Elba.” “Good.” Dale sounded a little relieved, but Vaughn knew he wasn’t. “Somethin’s happened, an’ I think you need to get here as quick as your right foot will let you.” “Hang on, what’s happened? An’ I only answered to stop you from callin’ me.” He was trying to be blunt, but he was starting to grow anxious himself. “How far away are you? I need to know.” “Dale. Shit.” “How far Vaughn?” He almost shouted it. “Little more than three hours. Could knock off half an hour if I pushed it. What the hell has happened Dale?” He hated be kept in the lurch, and it seemed almost as if Dale was purposefully trying not to tell him. “We’ve found Louise’s truck . She ditched it.” Dale was quiet as he said it, Vaughn struggling to hear him. “What? She okay?” Vaughn asked, concern in his voice and his heart raced as there was a pause on the end of the line. “Dale?” “We can’t find her.” “What d’ya mean you can’t find her? Cops there? You rang hospitals?” He was almost shouting as he pressed his foot a little further down on the gas pedal, the speedometer rising to eighty five miles per hour without a hitch.

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“She ain’t nowhere, trust me, we’ve looked. Told the cops not to touch anythin’ ‘til you get here.” “Where’s here?” “The one twenty five just outside o’ town.” A gust of wind blew down Dale’s cell phone, and Vaughn instantly knew he was with the cops. “Fuck. God damn it.” Vaughn shouted, moving the phone away from his ear so that it wouldn’t be so close to his mouth. He gave the steering wheel a whack as he moved it back. “Anyone have any clue what the hell happened? She wouldn’t have thrown it down a ditch for no reason Dale. She loved that truck.” “Calm down. We need ya level headed.” Dale was obviously trying to keep him cool, but Vaughn wasn’t biting. “Calm down? How can I calm the fuck down Dale? Now, tell me why the heck she ditched it.” He pressed his foot to the floor and overtook three slower cars, the thumping in his chest not slowing. “An’ don’t gimmie any shit ‘bout don’t know. There’s gotta be somethin’ there that’ll tell you.” “Bumpers mashed an’ the tail gate’s screwed. Looks like she was whacked a good few times.” Dale still sounded concerned even though his voice was a little low, probably because the cops were listening in. “Shit.” “Vaughn?” Dales tone had changed, and Vaughn knew exactly what was coming. “Don’t Dale. Just don’t. Anyone out lookin’?” “Matt hates himself. Had a word in the barn. Told me everythin’ man.” Dale did sympathy very well, and Vaughn knew that he knew it.

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“I said is anyone out lookin’ for her?” His eyes started to sting again as he realised just how much he really cared for Louise no matter what happened. “Shelby an’ the two T ee’s. Got some cops out there too.” “I’m gonna push it, try an’ get there as quick as I can.” And without saying goodbye, Vaughn disconnected the call and threw his phone on the seat beside him, pushing his foot further down on the gas pedal.

*

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*

Vaughn had been reaching triple figures on his speedometer for most of the drive back to Elba, thankful that he hadn’t been caught by the cops, but still not really caring if he had been. He had slowed down as he passed his house, his pulse quickening as he drew closer, a little scared at what he’d find, or wouldn’t. Somethin’ really ain’t right. He though as he passed the store that Louise and Shelby worked in and just being able to see the ‘Closed’ sigh hanging on the door . Why the hell would anyone wanna run her off the road? He still couldn’t fathom why someone would want to do that, but he also had a strange feeling that a lot of the details were being kept from him. As he turned onto Highway 125 he instantly saw the flashing lights at the side of the road, as well as Dale’s red truck. Vaughn carried on past the hoard of cops and lights and turned his Sierra around so that he could pull up just in front of Dale, the cops not being able to give him a ticket for illegal parking. His heart was pounding against his chest as he turned off the ignition and rested his forehead on his steering wheel. He took two big breaths before placing his cell phone back in his pocket and finally moved over the bench seat to the

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passenger side. He jumped down and walked over to Dale who was standing with a rather tall Police man, probably explaining to him who Vaughn was. “Mr. Perriloux. Sergeant Watson.” The sergeant shook his hand briskly. “I see you’re finally here. Mr. Holt has informed me that you’re the missin’ woman’s partner.” It was said without emotion and Vaughn knew that he was treating this like every other roadside and missing person incident. “Yeah.” Vaughn replied as he stopped to the right of Dale, taking his hand back. “He also said that you two had an argument Wednesday evenin’. That correct?” “Yeah, we did. That was the last time I saw her if you’re wonderin’. I was over in Opp for a couple o’ nights, then made my way up to Moundville. Stopped there last night.” Vaughn had his arms crossed, knowing too well that the Sergeant in front of him was treating him as a suspect. “You have any receipts from the places ya stopped?” The Sergeant scribbled something on his note pad as he spoke. “Yeah, in my truck.” Vaughn took a deep breath, trying to calm himself. “Know what happened?” “I’ll have a look at those in a minute.” He motioned for Vaughn to follow him and walked a little closer to Louise’s truck. His pulse was racing as he saw the state of the rear bumper and tailgate, the rest of it being filthy from the mud and water in the ditch. “From the looks o’ things she was hit in the rear a good couple o’ times, forcin’ her off the road. Was lucky to miss that tree there.” Vaughn shivered slightly as he glanced over the truck, Dale still keeping to the left of him. “Find anythin’ unusual ‘part from that? I mean, anythin’ inside the cab?”

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He turned back to Sergeant Watson, trying not to let on just how frightened he was for Louise. “Mr. Holt insisted that we wait ‘til you arrived, just in case there was anythin’ you’d need to identify an’ such.” He looked over to Dale. “You know how it is.” Dale shrugged. “They sent out their Canine Officer along with a few others to get lookin’, Shelby an’ the other two are havin’ a look too, took out Terry’s truck.” “Thanks.” Vaughn looked from Dale to the Sergeant before back to the dirty Custom 10, not quite knowing what else to say. He registered the Sergeants nod to the crime scene unit that was on site, obviously to let them know it was okay for them to fully start their inspection. One man moved over to the cab of the truck and opened the passenger side door. He watched as the CSI took a picture of something before reaching in, picking something off the bench seat and was careful not to knock it. Vaughn frowned slightly as he noticed the silver glint in the sunlight. “Louise’s chain.” He said as he slowly started to make his way over to the investigator as he placed it in a clear evidence bag. “She was wearin’ it Wednesday night.” He turned back to Dale, who was watching him carefully. “That was the first time I saw it.” “We’ve got blood Sarge.” The technician around the other side of the cab said as he took a swab of the steering wheel. “Could be head trauma from the impact. Looks like there’s some on the seat too. More likely to have been dragged out the passenger door from the looks o’ things.” “Would seem that way.” Sergeant Watson had moved closer to the cab of the pickup, peering in to see the stains on the white seat.

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“You’re sayin’ she ain’t just up an’ left?” Vaughn said turning to the Sergeant again. “That someone has physically taken her outta her truck? That this was done on purpose?” He turned back to Dale, helplessness in his eyes and panic in his voice. “Dale?” “Mr. Perriloux.” The Sergeant started as he made his way back over to Vaughn. “Did Miss. Best have any enemies that you knew ‘bout? Anyone at all that might do somethin’ like this?” “I don’t know.” He said as he rubbed his right hand down his face, knowing that he shouldn’t be watching the men collecting evidence and taking pictures, but not being able to take his eyes from them. “I can’t thin-” His eyes grew wide as he spun his head around to meet Dale’s eyes, horror on his face. “Vaughn?” Dale said. “You’re scarin’ me man.” “Mr. Perriloux? Is there somethin’ I need to know?” Vaughn turned to face the Sergeant before taking a deep breath. “Her ex.” He turned back to Dale. “God dang it Dale, it was him.” “Vaughn, you don’t-” Dale started. “Who else could it be? Everyone who knows her loves her Dale. She ain’t one to be makin’ enemies.” He pushed past Dale and ran to his pickup. “They ain’t gonna find her where they’re lookin’.” “Mr. Perriloux!” Sergeant Watson called after him. “If ya know where she-” “I don’t, but I think I do.” Vaughn flung himself onto the bench seat of his truck before starting the ignition. He pulled back onto the highway, the Sergeant, Officers and CSU following him with their eyes as he sped off. How the hell did I not think o’ that before? Stupid. Vaughn checked his rear view and saw that Dale had left the crime scene and was following him. Dang it Dale.

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He thought as his cell phone rang, answering as he turned right, making his way back to his house. “Vaughn, what the hell man?” Dale shouted. “They ain’t gonna do anythin’ Dale, cops never do.” Vaughn knew exactly what he was going to do, and that involved him finally opening his gun case down into his basement after two long years. “Them cops have more man power than just you. Tell ‘em an’ let ‘em handle it.” “I don’t care how bad she hurt me Dale, I ain’t just gonna sit ‘round an’ wait to hear bad news. That ain’t me, an’ you know it ain’t.” Vaughn disconnected the call and placed the phone back into his pocket. I hope you’re okay Louise. No matter how bad ya hurt me honey, I still love you. Please be okay. He prayed, knowing that she was going to be far from it if that brute had her. It only took Vaughn another five minutes to reach his house, skidding to a holt outside and throwing the pickup into ‘Park’ before removing the keys and racing to the basement door. He heard Dale pull up behind him and jump out of his truck, racing over to catch the door just before it clicked shut. “Vaughn, don’t be stupid man, c’mon.” Dale pleaded, Vaughn unlocking his gun case. “I ain’t. I’m protectin’ myself. An’ if I have to shoot that sonofabitch, so be it.” Vaughn picked out his stunning 12 gauge walnut M2 Field shotgun before unlocking the cabinet next to it and picking out a good handful of cartridges. “I ain’t takin’ chances. Plus it’s gonna be dark soon.” He turned back to Dale who was watching him with wide eyes.

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“Vaughn. Put the gun away man. Those cops won’t take lightly to you goin’ ‘round an’ killin’ him. They’ll throw ya in the County. Heck, you don’t even know if it is him.” Dale stepped to him and placed his hand on his shoulder. Vaughn turned to face him, a fire in his eyes. “I ain’t leavin’ her Dale.” He turned back and locked both of the cases, Dale dropping his hand. “He’ll kill her.” His voice had softened, but as his eyes met Dales again, they were still full of determination. “You know where she is?” Dale asked. “Not one hundred percent, but I’m pretty sure they’ll be back at their ol’ place.” Vaughn started to walk back to his truck, Dale following. He locked the door to the basement. “An’ I’m sure it’s along that same highway where her truck was found. I’ll go ‘round the cops on Flats Road.” “I know I ain’t gonna stop you. You go ahead, I’m gonna wait here an’ give everyone a ring, let ‘em know where you’re headin’ so you got some back up.” He paused a second as he took another step towards Vaughn, giving him a pat on the back. “Be careful. I’ll be followin’ soon.” “Yeah.” Vaughn said. “I’ll find her.” He gave Dale a nod before jumping back into his truck, the V8 rumbling to life as he spun it around and headed off back to Highway 125.

*

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*

“Terry.” Terry said as he answered his cell phone. Dale heard a clang and knew that they had just got back into his green 1980’s pickup truck.

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“Hey man, it’s Dale. Vaughn’s back an’ he thinks he knows where she is.” Dale was sitting in his truck on Vaughn’s drive, the engine running, but his truck still in ‘Park’. “Where’s that then, ‘cause we’re startin’ to run outta steam.” “Louise’s ol’ place. Know where it is?” Dale asked, but he knew that Shelby would know the exact location. “Yeah, Shelby’s givin’ me a nod. Want us to make our way out there?” Terry sounded tired, but there was a determination in his voice. “Yeah. An’ Terry?” “Shoot.” “He’s taken his M2 twelve with him.” Dale winced as he said it. “He ain’t takin’ chances is he?” Terry sounded a little shocked, but Dale knew he wasn’t. “Yup.” Dale paused. “I’m gonna ring Matt.” “That such a good idea?” He heard Terry start his pickup. “If I know Matt, yeah.” Dale nodded to himself. “You guys get on over there, but I suggest you don’t get too close.” “Fine by me. We’ll stick the truck outta the way so he ain’t expectin’ us. We’ll wait for you.” “Make sure I can see you’re truck from the road so I know where y’all are.” With that Dale hung up. He waited for the call to properly disconnect before dialling Matt’s number, taking a deep breath as he answered. “You gotta help us Matt.” Dale came straight out with it, not wanting to beat around the bush.

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“Why should I help you? He wouldn’t want me to, so you shouldn’t either.” Matt was being resilient and Dale wasn’t in the mood to be taking his crap. “Matt, you selfish shit. Get off your ass an’ do somethin’ for a change. Chris has her, an’ you know he ain’t gonna be treatin’ her to roses an’ wine.” “Dale, I need to tell you somethin’.” Matt sighed down the phone. “Don’t tell me. Chris blackmailed you with the rubbish ya told him in that bar a few years ago.” Dale couldn’t believe just how much people underestimated him. “How did-” “Just ‘cause I talk slow don’t mean I’m stupid. I know a lot more than ya think. Perks o’ listenin’ instead o’ jabberin’.” Dale said matter-of-factly. “Shit.” Was all he could obviously think of in reply. “Yeah, you are.” Dale said down the phone. “Vaughn’s got his M2 with him.” “Holy mother.” Matt paused and Dale waited. “Where’s he think Louise is, ‘cause that’s one thing I really don’t know.” “Ol’ house. Meet me outside the drug store an’ follow me.” “What ‘bout the cops?” “This is Vaughn we’re talkin’ ‘bout.” Dale sighed as he shifted into ‘Drive’, slowly tuning his truck around and making his way back down the driveway. “Right. No cops.” Dale heard Matt take a breath. “I’ll see ya in five.” The call disconnected and Dale felt relieved that Matt was finally going to confront the mess he had made. He understood that Matt had been blackmailed, he just couldn’t quite get his head around the fact that he had chosen the rodeos rather than Louise and Vaughn’s happiness.

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Vaughn had left his pickup truck about one hundred feet down the road from Louise’s old house, knowing that if he had driven any closer, the sound of his big block would have alerted Chris. He had managed to divert around the cops that were still by Louise’s truck on the highway, the road taking him a little further out of the way, but him being thankful he didn’t have to go past them. He had always hated the Police as they always took their time with everything, and Vaughn wasn’t the sort of man to just sit back and wait. He hadn’t bothered to lock his truck, it soon being dark and no one being able to see it from the road when night finally fell. His heart was pounding in his chest as he saw the house in front of him, ducking behind a large tree as he saw a light switch on in one of the front rooms. This ain’t gonna be easy. He thought to himself as he loaded his shotgun, the click being a little louder than he remembered. He peered back at the house from around the side of the tree, the fenced wooden deck and bright red door definitely being something he knew Louise would have chosen. Talk ‘bout bitin’ off more than you can chew this week Vaughn. He had a sinking feeling in his stomach as his gaze moved about the front of the house. He took in everything that she had left behind, the phrase ‘he gave me material but never emotional’ finally making sense to him. He took a deep breath as he watched the light in the room flick off and wondered where she would be, just as he was drawn to a very dim light underneath the porch. He crouched down slightly to get a better view, it seeming that the window

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had been covered with something from the inside but the corner having come away slightly. That’s where she is. He said to himself, fighting the urge to call out to her. If I can get under that porch, I might just have a chance o’ seein’ her an’ how to get her outta there. He looked back up at the house, frowning as noticed the front door was ajar. Shit. He heard light footsteps and had just enough time to turn around before he felt the blow against the side of his head, knocking him to the floor, unconscious.

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It’s Not My Cross To Bear

“Louise?” Came the weasel like drawl of her ex, her opening her eyes slowly before moving them over to where he was standing, plugging some cables into what looked like a television set. “What?” She said wearily as he finished, taking a step back before he looked over his shoulder at her. “I have a nice little surprise for you.” He grinned before switching on the set. She just managed to see the white light of the screen either side of him as he stood directly in front of it. “Perfect.” He turned around to face her with a disgusting smile before making his way over to the door. “Enjoy darlin’.” He slammed the door behind him and she heard the key connect with the lock again. Oh yay. She thought. Now I can watch re-runs of… She froze as her eyes focused on the image that had appeared on the screen, the feedback being slightly fuzzy, but still clear enough. This is not possible. She tried to shuffle down the wall a little more, the pain in her ribs engulfing her again. She was determined to get a better look just to make sure. No, no, no, no, no. She shook her head as she realised she wasn’t seeing things, and that this was in fact actual live feed from another camera. But even though the picture was in grey scale, she knew that stance and thick hair all too well. “Chris, you leave him alone!” She shouted as loud as she could, tears stinging her eyes as she knew exactly what he was planning to do with the man tied to the chair in the other room. “Please don’t hurt him!” Tears started to fall down her face, the shaking in her voice perfectly audible. “Please.” She said it more to herself as she bowed her head for a couple of seconds before lifting her gaze back to the

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screen. She hoped that the image would be gone, but knew deep down that it wouldn’t. Oh Vaughn. Wake up. Come on. You can get yourself out of this, I know you can. She said in her head, hoping that he’d be awake sooner rather than later . Please God don’t let Chris kill him. Please. She watched the screen as she prayed. Oh God. She heard footsteps outside of her door and quickly moved her gaze, her eyes wide with shock at how the situation had just escalated. “One more peep Lou, an’ there’ll be a lot more for you to watch on that screen sugar.” She heard Chris say through the door. “Please Chris. It’s me you want, not him.” She pleaded, hoping he’d see sense, but knowing deep in her heart that he wouldn’t. “Have it your way.” He replied, her hearing what sounded like metal clinking behind his footsteps. Her eyes moved back to the screen as she frowned at the sound, trying to figure out what it could be. Oh no. Please no. She thought as it finally clicked in her mind. She tensed all over, her eyes full of dread. She couldn’t help but watch as another figure, Chris, appeared at the bottom of the screen and lifted up the aluminium baseball bat over his shoulder, looking directly into the camera. “Please Chris, don’t.” She said it out loud, but not quite loud enough for anyone other than her to hear it. She frowned as nothing moved on the screen other than Chris dropping his gaze back down to Vaughn. All Louise could do was watch in fascination as he moved around to the front of the chair and knelt down, dropping the bat from his shoulder and using it the steady himself. What the hell is he doing? She thought, her muscles still tense as she knew Chris was very unpredictable.

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She watched as the image was still again, neither of the men moving. Ok, this may be my chance. I’ve got to try and wiggle free from these ropes. She said to herself as she gritted her teeth and leant against the wall behind her. She bent her knees so that her hands could reach her ankles. Come on you piece of crap. She cursed as she bared the pain and reached for the knot in the rope. Got you! She just managed to grab the knot, feeling around for a way to loosen it, all the while keeping her eyes on the screen, wondering what it was that Chris was doing. Come on, come on, you stupid rope. She fiddled for another couple of seconds before, finally, she untied the knot. Yes. She screamed in her head as she loosened the coils and pulled her right ankle free. She straightened out her legs to ease the pressure. Oh Jesus, that hurts. She turned her gaze back to the screen with a sigh, her ribs more than tender. What is he doing? She frowned again, curiosity getting the better of her as she moved to kneel, trying to ignore the pain and focusing on the two men. She managed to drive herself onto her feet and shift closer to the screen, it almost being perfectly level with her head as she stood in front of it. Come on Chris. What are you doing? She studied the two men again, jumping as she saw Vaughn flinch before he moved his head to look at Chris. Please don’t say anything stupid Vaughn. For the love of God don’t. She prayed as she watched Chris move the end of the bat and place it under his chin, lifting his head higher. There’s no sound. She thought, just as Vaughn flicked his head to one side, obviously saying something rather offensive to her ex. Chris picked up the bat as he stood, hitting Vaughn directly in his left ribs with the tip. Holy crap. “Chris, why are you doing this?” She said it to herself again as she watched Vaughn cry out in pain, Chris hitting him for a second time in exactly the same place. “You bastard.”

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Her eyes were now dry and more determined than ever. Right. She tried to concentrate on freeing her wrists, keeping her eyes on the television set in front of her, not just to see what was happening, but so that she could tell when Chris was leaving that room. Come on. Nearly there. Just a little more. She pulled as hard as she could, feeling the rope burn around her hands as she squeezed her right one free, pulling it out so hard that she pulled a muscle in her shoulder. Crap. She moved her left arm round in front of her and unwrapped the rope, throwing it to the floor. Don’t underestimate me Chris. She would have smiled if it hadn’t had been for the situation, but instead her eyes filled with a fire that would have scared her if she’d seen it. She moved closer to the television set, placing her fingertips over the image of Vaughn, who was now slumped in the chair. I’m coming sweetheart. Don’t worry. She couldn’t stop the tears flooding her eyes again, more out of anger than anything else. She moved her fingers just as Chris disappeared out of view, her ears pricking up and ready to listen out for footsteps coming down the corridor. She moved her eyes to the door as they slowly started coming into earshot, the clinking of the metal on the ground making her shiver. Oh crap. Her stomach dropped as she realised he was headed back down the corridor for one of two reasons. Number one that he was going to come into this room or number two, to look back through what she had been up to. There’s nowhere to hide. She spun around and looked around the room, the window being too high for her to even attempt to climb out of even with the chair. Then it hit her. The bathroom. It had a lock on it. And a window above the bath.

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She dashed to the other side of the room, wincing at the pains radiating through her, but not slowing down. She just hoped that Chris hadn’t heard her fly across the dirt on the floor. She came to a stop just inside the door, shutting it as quickly and quietly as she could before flicking the lock, leaning against it with a sigh. This is not good. This is not good at all. She ran over to the bath and stood on the edge, reaching towards the window. She gritted her teeth as she tried the lock. “LOUISE!” Her eyes grew wide as she heard him roar her name, it chilling her more to the core that it ever usually did. “You bitch!” She heard the door swing open and hit the wall in the room. She tried the lock again on the window as she heard his footsteps growing louder. The dirt underneath his shoes crushed into the concrete underneath them. Come on, come on you stupid window. “You little fucker Louise!” He shouted as he punched the door, Louise flinching. The window wasn’t budging. “I know you’re in there you whore.” Louise said nothing as she tried to control her breathing. “Get the fuck outta there Louise, ‘cause I’m gonna teach you a lesson you ain’t gonna forget!” He hit the door again, this time with a little more force, causing her to turn her head. A small bump had appeared on the inside of the bathroom door and she knew she was trapped. Louise, what the hell have you done? She cursed herself, knowing all too well she was going to get a very good beating, the damage depending on how long it took for him to bash down the door. Vaughn! He really is going to kill him now. Stupid, stupid, stupid! She looked over the lock again, noticing something strange. She peered closer, heart thumping

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in her chest. Glue. He’s glued it shut. She tried it again before finally giving up. It was never going to open. “If you get outta there, right now, I’ll save that piece o’ shit in the other room from a beatin’.” He didn’t hit the door, yet she stayed silent. “Come on.” His voice had turned sweet. Too sweet. “I didn’t mean it. I was only scarin’ you. I won’t hurt him.” “Really?” She half whispered, half spoke as she stepped down off the bath. She knew she shouldn’t believe him, but it came out before she could stop herself . He lurched at the door then, making her jump back and almost fall into the bath. “No I fuckin’ ain’t! He’s gonna come off worse than you, ya little shit. Now get outta that bathroom Louise!” All she could do was watch as the door bowed with every blow, praying to God that it would hold it, but knowing that it wouldn’t for much longer.

*

*

*

Matt sat in the cab of his Silverado, watching as the headlights of Dales truck swung into the parking lot outside the drug store. I can’t believe I’m doin’ this . He though as he heard the pickups door slam, Dale jumping straight into the passenger seat next to Matt. “I ain’t sure ‘bout this Dale.” Matt said bowing his head, his Resistol pulled down over his eyes. “Sorry to be blunt, but you made this mess man. You clean it up.” Dale didn’t have any sympathy in his voice, and Matt moved his head so that he could see his eyes.

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“How can I clean it up Dale? I never can, you know that.” “We ain’t got time for this crap Matt.” Dale sighed. “There ain’t nothin’ I can do that y’all can’t on your own.” Matt rested his forehead on the steering wheel and shut his eyes. “I’m gonna tell ya this once, an’ just once, so you best listen.” Dale shifted so that he was facing his friend, Matt rolling his head so that he could see him. “I know that you can do hell of a lot when you put your mind to it man, take that buckle ya wear. Didn’t get that by sittin’ on a fence. I know ya screwed up man, we all do. Now’s your time to put it right. You know Chris ain’t gonna be shy o’ gettin’ rid o’ her, an’ no offence to Vaughn but he ain’t strong enough to handle a guy like that, even with a shotgun.” “He ain’t gonna want me helpin’ Dale.” Matt rolled his head back, lifting his hands to the wheel and waiting a few seconds before lifting up his head. “I’m tellin’ you he ain’t gonna care.” “I hate myself.” “I’m gonna hate you even more if ya don’t get a move on.” Dale leant over and started the engine. “Drive.” “God, I hope she’s ok.” Matt sighed as he put the shifter into ‘Drive’ and pulled out of the parking lot. “Me too. For your sake.” Dale said, turning to watch the road. He dug out his cell phone and dialled Terry as they made their way up the highway towards Louise’s old house. “Terry, where’re you?” Dale said, leaning forward slightly. “Waitin’ for you. You hit the one two five yet?” Terry sounded a little impatient.

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“Just ‘bout to jump on now. No one in front of us, so we should be the next set o’ light ya see.” “I think I see you. I’ll stick my brakes down so ya can pull up behind me.” Matt saw the red lights flick on up ahead, Dale pointing to pull up. “Gotcha.” Dale shoved the phone back into his pocket as Matt pulled up behind Terry’s truck. “Matt.” Shelby said with cold eyes as he switched off the ignition and jumped down from the cab of his Silverado. “Glad ya had sense enough to help us out.” “Yeah, well. An’ I know I’m a dick.” Matt leant against the front fender, his hands tucked into the pockets of his Wranglers. “I hear it was more of a bad choice.” Shelby said as her glance flicked over to Dale who was rounding the front of the truck. “A selfish choice.” Tyler butted in. “Hey.” Dale said, looking from Tyler to Matt and back again. “We can do that later. What’s important now is that we get on over to that house an’ figure out a way to pull her outta there. I’m hopin’ Vaughn has had sense enough to keep his distance for now.” “You’re right Dale.” Said Terry. “I’ve had a scout an’ looks like the best way to hit the house undetected it to head off that way, come ‘round from the side.” He pointed out across the fields that were now in complete darkness. “Shelby tell you to say that?” Dale raised his eyebrows at Terry. “Kinda.” Terry said. “But I do have flashlights.” He handed one to Dale and one to Shelby. “Let’s start movin’ then.” Dale looked over to Matt as the others started to make their way to the first field.

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They clicked on their flashlights, small bright blue beams shooting out in front of the group. Matt pushed himself off his truck and started to move, jogging slightly to catch up with them as they disappeared into the darkness.

*

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*

Louise had nowhere to go, and she knew with the next blow, the door would be no more. “He’s now dead Louise, an’ you’re very close to it.” Chris spat as his next whack bought the door caving in, his eyes full of rage as they focused directly on her. “Come here.” He took two steps towards her before grabbing her arm. Louise tried to struggle as he pulled her away from the bath and back into the room, throwing her to the ground. Her ribs exploded in pain as she hit the floor and skidded to a stop in the dirt. “Chris, please don’t.” She begged, tears streaking her face again as she tried to push herself off the ground. “Don’t? You’re gonna need more than that Louise.” He walked towards her, his steps echoing in her head as she tried to use her heels to push herself along the ground and away from him. “Chris.” Her voice shook as her eyes grew wide, him bending down and grasping her ankles. “Now I’m gonna teach you that lesson an’ use you like the whore you really are.” He jerked her to him using her ankles. She fell flat onto her back with a thud from the force of the pull.

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“Let me go! ” She screamed as he held her to the floor, his right hand pressed into her chest. “Chris!” She tried to squirm out of his grasp, her more bothered about escaping the maniac that was on top of her than the thundering pain that threatened to engulf her. “Fuck you Louise.” He spat as he reached down and undid her belt with his left hand. She knew he was too close for her to try to roll over, but tried anyway with no luck. He’s going to rape me. She started to panic in her mind and tried to hit out with her hands as she heard the metal of his buckle clink to the side. She hit his arm, but with it having no effect she tried to use her heels to move her backwards again as he undid the zip on her jeans, the only effect it having was shifting them down slightly. Oh God. He lifted the pressure off her chest and, without thinking, she took the chance to push herself over and onto her knees, throwing herself to her feet. Just as she took a running step, he reached for her ankle and pulled her back down into the dirt. She screamed in pain as she hit the concrete, trying to grasp hold of anything as he pulled her back to him. He leant over her and pinned her wrists to the ground above her head, his face stopped inches from hers. “You ain’t very cooperative for a whore.” His eyes bore into hers, his intention for her perfectly clear. He moved his right hand to take hold of her wrists, his left hand running down to her waist and lifting up her camisole. Louise shut her eyes and moved her head to the side to try and escape his glare. “Please Chris. Not like this.” She whimpered, feeling his hand move to her hip, his fingers slipping just underneath her underpants as she shivered with dread.

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“You really think ya deserve anythin’ else? Huh? D’ya?” Chris moved his face closer to hers, Louise feeling his warm breath on her ear. “Chris.” She tried to hold back tears. “Please.” She moved her head back so that she was looking into his eyes, the brown in his almost black. “I still love you.” Her heart sank as she said it, but it got the reaction she was hoping for. “You what?” He immediately froze, the fire still in his eyes. “How dare you-” “I do Chris.” She swallowed, trying to stop her voice from wavering. “That’s why I don’t want to be with you like this.” She paused as she studied his face, his frown telling her he wasn’t quite buyin g it. “I love you Chris.” She felt sick as she warmed her eyes, it being the only way he’d really believe her. “You’re liein’.” He didn’t move his gaze from hers, and she knew that this was the moment of truth. “Why did ya leave if ya still do?” She heard his tone change and couldn’t help but do backflips in her head. Finally. She thought. “I needed time after what happened, but I knew I couldn’t leave you forever.” She kept the light in her eyes as he moved his hands so that he could lean his elbows in the dirt. She clenched her jaw as his torso lay lightly on top of hers, just thankful that they were both clothed. She watched his eyes as she thought of something else to say, and eventually it came to her. “I was coming to see you on Wednesday night. That’s why I was heading this way.” She moved her hands to the top of his arms, feeling him tense slightly at her touch. “Really?” He asked, his thumb gently rubbing the left side of her head, just above where the purple color of a bruise was starting to form. This is going to involve him kissing you and you know it. She winced as his thumb hit a tender part of her skin. He realised and placed his hand in her hair instead.

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Oh hell. She felt the bile rise in her throat and swallowed hard. “Why don’t you kiss me and then ask me that again?” She kept her eyes searching his as he leant into her, shutting them when he was less than an inch away from his lips touching hers. She frowned as he kissed her and Louise knew she had to make this work, for both hers and Vaughn’s sake. She kissed him passionately, raising her right hand to the back of his head as he finally gave in, her heart thumping against her chest as she resisted the urge to pull away from him. “I don’t think there’s any need to be askin’ that question again.” Chris smiled as he pulled back from her, her eyes opening slowly to keep up with the facade. “Good.” She said it quietly before he pushed himself off her and onto his knees. “We’ll save that for later.” He held her gaze as he said it, chilling her to the bone before reaching down to do up her jeans and belt. Oh thank the Lord. She thought as he leant over and took hold of her around her right shoulder, helping her to her feet. “Thank you.” She gave him a weary smile as he kissed her hard on her forehead. “I’ve got somethin’ to attend to, so I’m gonna have to tie you back to that chair.” He said it gently as he brushed the dirt off her shirt and jeans. “Why? I thought-” “It ain’t gonna be for long.” He ran his fingers through her dusty hair as she frowned. “I promise Lou.” She reluctantly moved over to the chair with him and let him tie her to it, but only around her chest. She knew that he would loop each rope around the rungs on the back of the chair so that she couldn’t slip the coil over the top.

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She watched him leave the room, locking the door again before turning her gaze back to Vaughn on the television screen. Vaughn, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know what else to do. She said in her mind, bowing her head as a couple of tears fell. Hang on a minute. She sniffed as she looked back up to the screen. Why has he sat me just here? She heard Chris whistle as his footsteps started to move away down the corridor, the metal clinking on the concrete following him. “Oh good Lord, no.” Her eyes grew wide again as she saw Chris appear on screen, Vaughn moving his head so that he could see him. Words were exchanged, and even though Louise couldn’t hear them, she knew that Chris would be telling him to stay away from her, along with whatever else came into his mind at that moment in time. “Oh my God, Chris, please don’t. Please, please, please. Don’t hurt him.” She whispered to the screen as her eyes flicked from Chris to Vaughn and back, waiting for the swing of the bat that was once again over Chris’s shoulder. What is he doing? Louise thought as she leant in a little closer to watch Chris drop the bat to between his knees and untie the ropes that were attaching Vaughn to the chair. He’s letting him go. Thank God he’s letting him go. She smiled as Vaughn stood up and moved just out of view of the camera, Chris following close behind. “No!” Louise screamed as she saw the metal bat swing back before obviously connecting with Vaughn. She heard his scream echo down the hall. “You monster!” She shouted as she tried to twist free, yelling through gritted teeth as her broken bones throbbed in her side. “Leave him alone!” She started to cry again as she watched Vaughn fall back into frame on his knees, Chris kicking him back into the centre of the room. She winced as she watched Chris aim another kick into Vaughn’s ri bs. He doubled over in pain as a whimper escaped her throat.

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She moved her head to the side so that she wasn’t looking at the screen, the images on the television set starting to make her hyperventilate. I can’t watch him kill him. Oh God, he’s going to kill him. All because of me. She made herself lift her eyes back to the grey scale picture on the screen, tears falling down her cheeks as she watched Chris lift the baseball bat again and take another swing. Vaughn had backed against the wall and lifted his arm to protect his face, Louise watching in horror as the metal bat connected with his arm, snapping the bone in two. “Oh God no!” She wailed as she heard Vaughn’s cries, the bat on the television set coming down again and hitting his shoulder. She watched Chris throw the bat to the corner of the room before walking over to Vaughn and picking him up, his hand underneath his head, almost around his neck. He’s still alive. Louise watched him squirm in Chris’s grasp. She could just make out movements on Vaughn’s bloody lips, as he evidently said something to her ex. The images were still again for almost thirty seconds, Chris still keeping Vaughn pinned against the wall. Louise steadily started to control her breathing as she leaned into the television set again, her tears drying up as she watched the two men on the screen, her eyes wide. Suddenly Chris moved, throwing Vaughn almost like a rag doll into the adjoining wall. Louise screamed as she watched Vaughn’s head smash into the concrete, leaving a smear of blood as he slumped to the floor. “Vaughn!” She screamed as she tried to writhe free again, but the stabbing pain in her side too much for her as she collapsed into the chair.

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Chris, you win. I give up. She couldn’t help but to let her tears fall again, knowing that there was no way he was ever going to let her out of the basement alive. She lifted her head back to the screen with an effort, watching to see whether Chris had left the room Vaughn was in. She tried to choke back her tears as she watched him pick up the bat again, forcing the end into Vaughn’s collar bone before smiling up at the camera. She moved her eyes back down to the dirt on the floor, her breaths being. She heard the clink of metal and footsteps coming back towards her door, and lifted her head as the lock was flicked open. She blinked heavily as she saw Chris leaning on the door frame, a smug yet satisfied look on his face as small trickles of blood ran down the bat he held over his shoulder. She watched him for a little less than a minute before he shut and locked the door again, his footsteps disappearing behind another slam. Oh Vaughn. I’m so sorry. She looked back up to the screen through blurry eyes. I’m so sorry.

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God & Guns

“That’s gotta be it.” Terry said as they slowly started to approach the house from the side. It was in complete blackness apart from a small lantern that was hanging from the corner of the roof overhanging the porch. “Sure is.” Shelby whispered in response, a shiver running through her as she looked over the house. “Matt, Terry.” She motioned for them to come closer to her, so she could speak to them as they all knelt down into the grass. “You two go through the front. You’re more likely to hold him off if he’s upstairs.” “She’s got a point.” Dale said quietly, Matt nodding. “Shelby, me, you an’ Tyler’ll go in through the back.” “Dale, wait.” Shelby grabbed hold of his arm as her gaze focused on a small orangey yellow glow coming from underneath the porch. “She’s down there.” She pointed, the others following her finger. “Shelby, that might not be-” “It is. I’m gonna crawl on over, see if I can see her, maybe talk to her . I can give you guys a heads up on text if there’s anythin’ y’all should know.” “Be careful.” Dale said as Shelby made her way to the porch, her heart racing as she neared the house, almost having forgotten just how potent the atmosphere was around it. She managed to squeeze through a tiny gap on her stomach, using the light of her cell phone to make sure it was clear. She gave Dale a quick ‘Ok’ text to let them k now she was underneath and fine before she crawled over to the window.

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“C’mon.” Terry said to Matt, moving into a crouch as he made his way to the front door, Matt following. “I ain’t got a good feelin’ ‘bout this.” Matt whispered as they both gently made their way up the porch steps, Matt turning back around to watch Dale and Tyler run around the side. “Not at all.” “Shut up Matt an’ let’s just focus on why we’re here.” Terry turned to face him before placing his hand on the door knob, his blue eyes catching Matt slightly off guard. He turned back and watched as he turned the knob, the door opening with a click. Matt moved so that his back was against the outside wall as Terry slowly pushed open the door. “I think we’re clear.” Matt nodded to Terry who, for once, had decided to take the lead, stepping lightly into the house. They moved to the doorway on the right, peering into the darkness and not being able to quite make out anything other than a couch. Terry flicked on his flashlight and pointed it towards the known object, jumping back slightly when he saw something that looked like a person sitting. He calmed himself when he realised it was only a hat. “That’s Vaughn’s.” Terry squinted his eyes at the hat that was sitting on the arm of the couch. “Oh hell, Matt.” Terry turned around the face his friend, horror on his face. “C’mon, dining room’s over here.” Matt said as they walked back across the hall and into another room. There was an eight seat dining table that looked like it was made out of solid wood, but there were two chairs missing. “One guess where those chairs are.” Matt said as he scanned the room, Terry’s flashlight lighting the

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dark corners, if only for a second or two before the shadows returned. “Shoot.” Matt whispered as his cell phone vibrated in his pocket, pulling it out to see a message from Dale. ‘In ktchn. No1 bout. Cum 2 bck O house. Fnd V’s gun.’ “Right. Quiet. Those’re stairs goin’ up an’ down right there.” Terry said as they started to make their way to the back of the house down the hall. A floor board squeaked underneath him, Matt wincing slightly as they both froze, watching the stairs heading down to the basement with wide eyes. They heard a door open at the end of the hallway, and both of their hearts started to pound as a figure appeared. “C’mon.” Dale whispered, Matt and Terry letting out a breath as they realised it was him. They crept the rest of the way, Matt keeping his eyes on the stairs to the basement as they made it to the kitchen, Dale shutting the door quietly behind them. “Matt, here. You’re a better shot than any of us.” “Gee, thanks Dale. An’ not with my left I ain’t.” Matt took Vaughn’s shotgun, his heart skipping a beat as he held it for the first time in almost three years. “I know it’s weird man, but more than likely Chris has gotta gun on him too .” Matts eyes focused on Dale and he became stern. “Don’t play dumb Matt. I don’t need to tell ya how to shoot a gun with a broken wrist. Cowboy up.” Dale whispered as his phone vibrated in his hand and flicked it open to read a text message from Shelby. The others waited.

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There she is. Shelby said to herself as she managed to spot Louise sitting in a chair with something that looked like a television set in front of her. For sayin’ he’s a meticulous shit he ain’t taped this window too well. She thought as she managed to cross her legs as she hunched over, making herself a little more comfortable. She looked behind quickly, assessing whether anyone was there, and when she was satisfied she was alone, tapped on the glass. C’mon Louise, wake up sugar. C’mon. She tapped again, this time Louise opened her eyes and swung her head around towards the window. Shelby watched as she grimaced in pain, something obviously hurting her badly. “It’s me. Lou, can ya hear me?” She said as Louise looked at her friend with wide eyes, squinting slightly when she spoke before shaking her head. Oh baby, you look a mess. Shelby placed her fingers on the glass, as if to say ‘I’m here’. Right, how do I make the text huge on this dang phone? Shelby asked herself as she fiddled with her cell phone, altering the text so that it was extra-large. She typed a message that read ‘How U?’ and showed it to Louise through the gap. She watched as Louise attempted to shuffle her chair around so that she could see the letters clearer. Louise froze before looking over towards what Shelby saw to be a door. She stayed that way for a second or two before turning her gaze back to Shelby and nodding. Obviously you’re not Lou, but I know what ya mean girl. Shelby changed her message to ‘Vaughn?’ and showed it to Louise. Louise shook her head as it fell forward, it obvious she’d started to cry. Oh baby girl! What has he done to you two? Shelby had to sit back and hold in tears, knowing that, by the state of Louise, it would be lucky if Vaughn was alive at all. She deleted the message and wrote a

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new one, showing it to Louise and hoping that she would hold on for just another couple of minutes. Shelby tapped on the glass and watched as Louise moved her gaze back to her friend, and read the message, her eyes lighting up before frowning as if to say ‘really?’ Shelby wrote ‘Yes’ and showed it to her friend who was now looking a little hopeful. She sighed with relief as she text Dale telling him that Louise was ok, but Vaughn wasn’t so good. She placed her phone in her lap before her fingertips pressed on the glass again.

*

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*

An’ they really think I can’t hear ‘em, huh? Chris smiled to himself as he quietly made his way down the hall and into the only empty room in the basement. He had heard the front door creak open and the voices upstairs and thought it was ridiculous that they thought he couldn’t hear them at all. An’ they have his gun. Dang. Guess I shouldn’t have left it on the counter in the kitchen. He thought for a second or two as he gently shut the door, standing in darkness. Good job I have somethin’ o’ my own. He reached around to the back of his jeans and felt the cold piece of metal that had been sitting there for the last half an hour. He had thought about just shooting Vaughn, but in the end he knew that using the bat on him would hurt Louise more. And she deserved it.

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His mind became clear as he heard a shuffling upstairs. Here they come. He could imagine them creeping down the stairs, scared as mice and trying to keep their heels from clacking on the wood. Fuckin’ cowboys. He pressed his ear to the door, his hand resting on the knob, and waited.

*

*

*

“Right. Terry, Matt, you two follow behind an’ check that we ain’t bein’ followed. Me an’ Tyler will go in front.” Dale looked around his three friends and knew that they all needed each other more now than they ever had. “Ready?” “Let’s go.” Terry said as Dale pulled open the kitchen door slowly, checking that no one was standing in front of it. When he was satisfied that the coast was clear, he moved the group to the top of the stairs. He moved them down one step at a time, Matt keeping a watch behind them. A stair creaked underneath Dale’s foot and he put his arm out to the side of him to stop them all from walking. They all waited, wide eyed and hearts pounding as Dale slowly moved his arm back down to his side and carried on. The other three put their weight on the outside of the step to stop it from creaking again. Finally Dale reached the bottom of the stairs, moving over to one side so that the others could join him on the concrete, Matt choosing to stay on the bottom step, gun by his left side. The light was very dim, there being one bare bulb hanging from the ceiling by its wire, only just managing to light up the space where the men were standing. “This is really creepin’ me out.” Tyler whispered to Dale who was checking around the side of the walls on either side of the steps.

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“Matt, Terry. You head that way, we’ll take this way.” Dale whispered stepping into the corridor and making his way to the left, Tyler following him. Matt and Terry had started to walk to the right just as they heard Dale shout. “Matt! He’s her-” “Shit!” Matt spun around and watched as Chris punched Dale in the stomach, winding him. “Dale! Ty get outta there!” “You fuckers!” Chris shouted as he spun around, taking his focus off Tyler and running at Matt, pulling a handgun from around his back. “Shoot him!” Dale shouted as loud as he could, still not being able to catch his breath. “Shoot him God damn it!” “Go to hell.” Matt whispered as he pulled the shotgun up and into his right shoulder ready to take the shot. He pulled the trigger as Chris pulled his, the noise deafening. There was silence as the shots echoed around the concrete walls, Chris gazing at Matt with wide eyes before slumping against the wall and dropping to the floor, gun clattering to the concrete next to him. Blood poured out of the wound just below his collar bone and quickly seeped underneath him, Matt taking a step backwards away from the small but steady growing pool. “Shit.” Terry said as he walked back towards Matt, not taking his eyes off Chris. “Nice shot.” He gave Matt a pat on his back as he stopped next to him, still watching the body. “I’m gonna call the cops.” Said Dale as he crouched down on the floor. The blow to his stomach had been a hell of a lot harder than he had expected, and now he understood just why Shelby had been afraid for her friend’s life. Chris was, or had been, a complete maniac.

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*

*

*

Tyler walked over to the door just behind Dale and tried to open it, the handle not budging. “How’s the one down the bottom Terry?” Tyler said as he passed Matt who still couldn’t take his eyes from Chris. “Locked.” Terry said as he squatted down and took a set of keys from Chris’s belt. “Here.” He threw the set to Tyler who jogged to the door at the bottom of the corridor, unlocking it with ease. “Tyler!” They heard Louise scream, all of them apart from Matt turning around and focusing on the door, waiting to see her emerge. Sure enough, after a minute or two had passed, the next one out of the door was Louise, keys in hand and sprinting towards them with a slight limp. She skidded to a stop as she saw Chris, her eyes wide as she took a deep breath before looking up at Matt. She gave him a light nod as she turned and ran toward the other door that was locked. She didn’t say anything as she swung it open and ran to the man that was in a pile on the floor, sliding to a stop on her knees besides him. “Holy crap.” Terry said as he watched Louise crouch over Vaughn, moving Matt to one side so that he could get past him. “Vaughn? Vaughn sweetheart, come on. Come on, you’re ok.” Louise said softly through tears that had started to run down her cheeks. “What has he done to you?” Terry was standing just inside the doorway, and watched as she gently stroked his hair before moving her head to lightly touch his. “Police an’ Ambulance are on their way.” Dale said as Tyler helped him stand, no one taking any notice as Matt disappeared.

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Louise turned to face Dale. “Thank you.” She whispered before turning back to Vaughn. “I’m so sorry.” She placed a hand on the ground to steady herself as she started to cry again. “I’m so sorry Vaughn.” The three men watched as Louise leant her head lightly back onto Vaughn’s cheek. The heaving of her chest was enough to tell them that she was crying heavily, even though she wasn’t making a sound. None of them could bear to speak, Terry placing his hands over his mouth as he slid down the wall into a crouch. “Please stay with me Vaughn. I love you.” She whispered it so that it was barely audible, but they all managed to catch it, a tear falling down Dale’s cheek. “Look.” Tyler whispered in Dale’s ear as he noticed a tiny movement, Louise flinching as Vaughn’s fingers found hers on the floor. “Oh my God.” Louise stammered as she took hold of his hand. “Vaughn, I’m here. I won’t leave you. I promise.” She kissed his cheek lightly, tears still falling down her face. “I’m here.”

*

*

*

Matt had been sitting on the front steps when he had heard the sirens in the distance. Shelby was leaning against the railings of the front porch, her knees and elbows dirty and the shotgun between them. It was almost dawn and the sun started to rise over the fields in the distance, bringing an eerie calm to what had been a rather frightening and uncertain night. Shelby hadn’t said anything to Matt, his body language saying more than enough to her as it was, and his blood splattered blue shirt a tell-tale sign that it was him who fired the shot.

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They stayed watching the sun rise as the police cars and three ambulances pulled up outside the house, the trance he was in not seeming to fade. Matt stood to the side to let the paramedics and ambulance crews with two gurneys race past him and down to the basement, closely followed by three police officers. Shelby walked over to the Sergeant who had slammed the car door shut, Matt wondering if it was the same Sergeant that was at the crime scene when Vaughn had arrived back. Matt could hear him asking her what had happened and demanding to know who he was, why he had blood on his shirt and a gun next to him. He turned and watched the others walk towards him down the hall, two police officers escorting them out. One was talking to Dale, the other to Tyler as they reached the porch and walked down the steps towards Shelby and the Sergeant. Terry came out last and stopped next to Matt. “Mr. Holt.” Matt heard the Sergeant acknowledge Dale. “Sergeant Watson.” Dale nodded, the next words in the conversation turning to a blur before he looked back over to the rising sun in the distance. “Gonna be a nice mornin’.” Terry said, his eyes following Matt’s. “Yeah.” Matt crossed his arms, winching at the sudden pain in his wrist. “You okay?” “I ain’t ever shot a man before Terry. What d’you think?” Matt didn’t lose his focus, but his eyes were distant. “Forget me then.” Terry glanced at Matt, but moved his gaze when he saw the hurt on his face. “That was an accident an’ wasn’t a ‘shoot to kill’ Terry. This was.”

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“How does it feel?” Terry had a sympathetic tone to his voice, but Matt still clenched his jaw. “Numb.” “You saved their lives Matt. An’ even ours.” Terry moved to face his friend, forcing Matt to drop his gaze from the horizon. “I know. But I can’t help thinkin’ this was my fault in the first place.” “I ain’t no Dale, so I ain’t no good at this, but Chris was a can short of a six pack an’ ya know what I’m sayin’. You did the right thing, in the end anyhow.” Terry gave his friend a light pat on the back, Matt bowing his head and looking at his boots. “You didn’t know it was all gonna turn out like this.” “Don’t change how I feel though.” He said quietly. “Mr. MacLewland, Mr. Cartright? If ya don’t mind we’d like to have a word with y’all ‘bout what happened down there.” An officer had appeared in front of them and was motioning them to move over to one of the cruisers. “Sure.” Terry replied as he started to make his way with the officer. “Matt?” Matt’s attention all of a sudden turned to the hallway inside the house, Terry following his gaze. They heard rushed steps and shouts that could have only come from Louise. “I’m not leaving him!” She screamed, walking beside the gurney that Vaughn was on. The ambulance crew and paramedics were around it checking his vitals as they carried it down the steps before wheeling it towards the first ambulance. “Miss, your left ribs and right cheek bone are badly broken. You need to be checked over properly.” One of the paramedics said to her in a Central American accent, Matt watching as she stayed alongside Vaughn.

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Louise looked the paramedic in the eyes. “I don’t care, I’m not leaving him. I’ll get checked at the hospital.” He watched as she turned back to Vaughn, oxygen mask over his mouth and nose. “I won’t leave you.” “But Miss-” “I don’t want my own ambulance, damn it.” She turned to the paramedic again as the gurney was loaded into the back. “I’m going with him and that’s it.” Matt saw her wince slightly and knew that she was in a lot more pain than she was letting on. “But Miss-” “Shut up and piss off.” Matt couldn’t help but give a weary smile at the remark, her stubbornness sometimes unbelievable. She changed her tone as she stepped into the ambulance, sitting down on the bench and placing her hand over Vaughn’s before looking back to the paramedic. “But thank you all the same.” “Just make sure you get those ribs and cuts seen to.” The paramedic shut the doors, giving a bang on the side before lifting his thumb to the driver. The ambulance sped off down the highway with sirens blaring heading towards the hospital. Matt watched as the ambulance disappeared before turning back to the house, taking in everything that had happened over the last few hours. He sighed as he slowly turned back to his friends and the officers standing around the police cruisers before picking up Vaughn’s shotgun in his left hand, holding it almost at the tip of the barrel. One of the officers rushed over to him, hand covering the handgun in his holster as Matt raised it, offering it to him, as, frankly, he was sick to death of seeing it. The officer took a white cloth out of his pocket, taking hold of the M2 by the handle and pointing it towards the ground. “I don’t know how we missed it, but thank you Mr. MacLewland. Yours?” The officer said as Matt walked with him to the police car.

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“Friends.” Matt looked back towards the house as they bought out the second gurney, this time with a black zip up bag that was obviously holding Chris’s body. “An’ murder weapon.” “I’ll have to take a statement from you. I’m guessin’ you took the shot?” The officer dropped Vaughn’s shotgun into a large clear plastic bag, labelling it bef ore handing it to one of the CSUs. “Yeah.” Matt paused before raising his gaze back to the officer who had opened the cruisers rear passenger door. “Yeah, that’s me.”

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San Antone Alone

Louise was asleep in the chair next to Vaughn’s hospital bed, she’d been by his side for the past five days. His coma had been induced by the doctors to save him from the extreme pain he would be in, but she still couldn’t bare to leave his side. She had been seen by the doctors as soon as she had arrived at the hospital in Enterprise with Vaughn, her demanding that she wasn’t too far away from him at any time. They had cleaned her up, stitching the cuts on her head and cheek before taking her to surgery and pinning her ribs back into place. They had been too badly broken for them to fuse together naturally and it was the one thing she couldn’t argue with. She had refused her own room, and knowing that they couldn’t win the arguments, the doctors had agreed they would keep an eye on her as she stayed with Vaughn in intensive care. An extra bed was placed in the room so that she could sleep when she needed it. Dale had been in and out during visiting hours for the past couple of days, not only to see how Vaughn was, but also to keep Louise company, bringing her clean clothes and coffees from the cafeteria. As Louise slept quietly in the chair, her knees bent and underneath her chin, Dale crept into the room with two coffees in his right hand, being careful not to bang the door when he shut it. He walked around the back of Louise and placed her coffee on the cabinet to the side of Vaughn’s bed, there being a water jug and a couple of plastic cups already occupying most of the space.

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He sat down slowly in the spare chair that was next to Louise, the nurses always bringing him one in when he came to visit. He watched as Louise’s heavily bandaged side moved gently with her breathing. He took a sip of his coffee as he leant forward, being accustomed to the bleep of the machines, and moved his gaze over to Vaughn. He was lying motionless on the hospital bed, tubes seeming to be going in and out of almost everywhere. He would never understand how the nurses could differentiate between each one. They all looked the same to him. He scanned his friends’ face, it paler than he had ever known it be, along with a good couple of purple bruises that were just starting to fade. The nurses had shaved him a couple of days before, but Vaughn’s stubble was starting to grow back again. He wondered if Louise would do it for him again tomorrow, but knew that she wouldn’t. He’d asked her before but her reply had been simply that she didn’t want to hurt him again, and even the smallest nick would make her feel terrible. Dale understood of course, and didn’t say another word about it. He sat in silence watching both Vaughn and Louise, their breaths both shallow but both of them seeming almost at peace. “If any two people were made for each other it’s you two.” He said, directing it at them but knowing he was really talking to himself. He leant his elbows on his knees, holding his coffee with both hands as he looked down at his feet. He lifted the toes of his boots up slightly before placing them back on the ground. It seemed all he was doing at this minute in time was waiting, and he let out a faint sigh as he traced the pattern on his left boot with his eyes. All of a sudden he heard a movement, the sound making him jump slightly as he lifted his head and glanced towards the bed. He placed his coffee on the floor and

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stood as he watched Vaughn try to move his legs, almost as if to roll onto his side. He groaned in pain and must have realised that he couldn’t move. “Vaughn?” Dale said as he leant over the bed and placed his hand over his. “Can ya hear me? It’s Dale.” Vaughn moved again, this time moving his arm slightly that was in a plaster cast. “I’ll get a nurse.” Dale pressed the red call button that was linked to an emergency switch by the nurse’s desk before running out into the hall. “Nurse. He’s awake.” He shouted, racing back into the room as three nurses started to run towards him. Dale held the door open so that they could enter without being slowed down. “Check his vitals.” Said the black nurse to her colleague who went by the name of Gabriella. She raced around to Vaughn’s side as he tried to open his eyes. “Vaughn? Can you hear me?” Dale ran over to Louise, crouching down beside her, shaking her gently. “Louise? Louise sugar, wake up.” She stirred, but not enough for her to be fully alert. “Louise? He’s wakin’ up sugar. C’mon sweet thing.” “Dale?” She rubbed her eyes as she looked at him, her blue eyes tired and questioning. “What’s happened?” “He’s wakin’ up.” Dale motioned to the bed where the nurses were, Vaughn’s eyes flickering open slightly before closing again. “Oh my God.” Louise stood, clenching her jaw. She had obviously forgotten about her breaks. “Vaughn?” She took a couple of steps to the bed before gently taking hold of his fingers and leaning into him, stroking his hair. “Vaughn, come on. Stay with me. I’m here. Come on Vaughn, wake up.” Dale stood and watched as Vaughn tried to move his right leg again, dropping it back down to the bed with a moan.

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“I know it hurts sweetheart.” Louise said as tears started to run down her cheeks, smiling when he finally held open his eyes and looked up at her. “Louise, you’re gonna have to move away for a second honey.” Gabriella said with warm eyes, and Louise stepped back, knowing that now was no time to argue. “Thank you. I just need to check he’s pullin’ outta this okay, then we can leave y’all to it.” “Thanks.” Louise nodded, Dale putting his arms around her shoulders and holding her in a hug. “He’s going to be okay, right Dale?” She looked up to him with watery eyes, and he knew all she needed was a little reassurance. “O’ course he is. He’s a tough cookie.” Dale said, moving his gaze from Louise and back to Vaughn. He waited before looking back to her and smiling. “A little like you in that way.” “Thanks.” She whispered, a slight blush rising to her cheeks as Gabriella turned back to face them. “He’s fine. Gonna be a little groggy for obvious reasons, but other than that he’s fine. If y’all need anythin’ you know where we are.” She smiled before rounding up the other two nurses. “Thank you.” Louise called after her, Gabriella giving her a nod as she closed the door lightly behind her. Louise turned back to Vaughn, the head of his bed having been raised slightly so that he was sitting up. She let go of Dale and walked over to the side of his bed, holding his fingers in her hand. “Hi.” She smiled. “Hey.” Vaughn said hoarsely, the lack of moisture in his mouth and throat more than obvious. “Here.” Dale said as he passed a cup of water to Louise. “Vaughn, drink this.” Louise touched the cup to his mouth, tipping it up as he drank, nearly drinking the

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whole cup in one go. “Steady there, don’t want any accidents.” Dale chuckled as Louise gave him back the empty cup. “Funny.” Vaughn coughed as he said it, groaning as he finally felt his pains. “What happened?” “You tried to save me.” Louise said in a whisper as he watched her, his eyes tired. “An’ you almost got yourself killed in the process.” Dale pulled up the chair Louise had been asleep on, Louise moving to sit on the edge of the bed. “Louise hasn’t moved from your side.” “Really?” Vaughn asked, his eyes flicking from Louise to Dale and then back again. “I wasn’t going to leave you.” She smiled wearily. “Had to drag her kickin’ an’ screamin’ down to surgery.” Dale chuckled, looking up at her. “That right?” Vaughn smiled weakly as his brown eyes rested on hers again. “Not exactly.” She blushed slightly before shoving Dale. “Louise. You know they did.” Dale replied before looking back to his friend in the hospital bed. “She’s a live one, even after takin’ a beatin’.” “What happened for you to need surgery?” Vaughn asked, concern sweeping across his face. “Nothing much. You came off worse, and you have no idea how scared I was. I thought I’d lose you.” Louise squeezed his fingers lightly, and he did the same. “You have a broken right arm and a fractured hand, numerous head injuries and had a dislocated ankle.” Louise took a breath before carrying on. “Dislocated shoulder, broken left collar bone and broken ribs on your left.”

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“That’s why I feel rough.” “I’m so sorry Vaughn.” A couple of tears fell down her cheeks as she said it. “Ain’t your fault.” Vaughn winced as he tried to squeeze her fingers tighter, hurt in his eyes. “You okay? Why surgery?” “You’re lying in a hospital bed asking me if I’m okay?” She sniffed with a chuckle, her eyes rising to meet his again. “Yeah.” “I’ve been better.” She watched him raise his eyebrows slightly and smiled as she dried her eyes with her free hand. “Fractured cheek bone and shattered ribs on my left. They took me to surgery because they needed to be pinned and wouldn’t have healed by themselves. Nothing to worry about really.” “I’ll be the judge o’ that.” He raised his eyebrows just enough to make her smile. Dale watched as she took in his face, leaning over him gently so that she could cup his cheek. “Doctors said you were very lucky. You could have had brain damage.” “Yeah, I guess I was.” Vaughn looked over to Dale, moving his head slowly. “Thanks.” “Ain’t me you should be thankin’ man.” Dale looked from Vaughn to Louise and back again. “That’s Matt.” “Dale don’t.” Vaughn started to say, moving his head so he was facing the opposite wall. “He fired the shot that saved all of us. He’s only just been released from the holdin’ cells. Rang me earlier. Cops said it was self-defence, so he’s free to go.” Dale paused as Vaughn’s eyes met his again. “Used your M2.”

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“Favourite shotgun’s now evidence.” Vaughn rolled his eyes to the ceiling. “Perfect.” “Without Matt we could both be dead Vaughn.” Louise said, bowing her head. Vaughn’s eyes turned hard. “Dale, can you leave me an’ Louise alone a minute?” “Yeah, o’ course.” Dale moved his chair back and stood up, placing a hand on Louise’s shoulder before he started to walk away. As he reached the doors he turned back to the couple, them both watching him. “I’ll be in the café if y’all need me.” And with that he left through the door, it clicking shut behind him.

*

*

*

“I was so worried.” Louise said as she shifted the chair right up to the side of the hospital bed and sat down. “I didn’t want to lose you.” “You hurt me.” His brown eyes were deep, and Louise couldn’t help but feel a stab in her heart. “But I couldn’t leave you.” Louise sniffed before taking a deep breath. “I’m so sorry Vaughn. Not just for this but for everything. I hate myself for everything that’s happened.” “Louise.” Vaughn tried to move up the bed a little, wincing as pain shot through his body. “Shoot.” “You okay?” He gave her a sarcastic glance as she said it. “Okay, I know. Silly question. Water?” “Please.” She filled the cup again from the water that was in the jug, leaning in and placing it to his lips so he could drink it. Their eyes caught each other’s as she moved the cup away slowly, him nodding that he had had enough.

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“What did he do to you?” She whispered as she gently stroked his hair, brushing her thumb lightly across his forehead. Vaughn shut his eyes, sighing as a tear dropped onto his cheek. “Louise.” He said quietly. “What’s the matter?” She sat back down, placing the cup back on the cabinet and moving her hand from his head. “I think ya should leave.” He said it without looking at her, his eyes being fixated on the ceiling tiles. “What?” Her eyes started to fill, but she chocked back her tears. “Why?” “I can’t do this.” His gaze didn’t move, and Louise knew whatever he was goin to say was not only going to hurt her, but him as well. “I’ve never felt like I have with you.” He paused. “An’ then seein’ that.” “Vaughn, please. I don’t care about Matt, I care about you.” She blinked away tears before continuing. “That’s why I’ve been sitting by your side for the last five days and nights. That’s why every doctor in the hospital won’t speak to me because they know they won’t win the arguments. That’s why Dale has been bringing me clean clothes every couple of days. I haven’t wanted to leave your side because I care about you.” Her voice broke down then as she raised her hands to her face to hide the tears that were falling. “Don’t.” He shut his eyes as he moved his head away, a lone tear falling down his cheek. “I don’t want you here.” There was a silence in the room that was only broken by the bleep of the machines. Louise moved her hands from her face and looked back up at him. She watched as he turned back to her, his brown eyes full of disappointment, and she knew he was serious.

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“So.” She sniffed lightly. “That’s it?” Her eyes had turned empty as she whispered it, not wanting to believe what he had said, and hoping he would tell her he was joking. “I guess.” He sighed. “Okay.” She moved her eyes from his, wiping away a few tears that were still sitting on her cheeks. She stood without saying another word, moving the chair back from the bed before picking up a small bag that was sitting on the floor the other side of the cabinet. She was almost at the door that lead out into the hallway before she froze, her head bowed and eyes on her boots. “You know.” She turned back slightly so that she could see the man lying in the hospital bed, and as she thought about her next words, she couldn’t help but let fresh tears fall. “No matter what I’ll still love you Vaughn.” She watched as he moved his gaze back to the ceiling, his jaw clenched. “No matter what.” And with that she exited, the door clicking behind her.

*

*

*

“Louise?” Dale shouted as he watched a familiar figure sprint down the hallway just outside of the cafeteria. “Wait a minute.” He left everything where it was and ran after her, just managing to catch up with her before she ran through another set of double doors. He grabbed her arm and bought her to a stop. “What the heck happened?” “He told me to leave.” She said, Dale watching as she turned herself around to face him. “He doesn’t want me here.”

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“What? Why?” Dale put his finger under her chin, lifting her head so that he could look at her. “Awww, sweet thing. You’ve been cryin’. What did he say to you?” He studied her blue eyes. “Must’ve been bad, ‘cause I know ya don’t cry for nothin’.” “I hurt him Dale. And I know he won’t forgive me. Not after everything he’s been through before.” She blinked, another tear falling down her cheek and Dale couldn’t help but pull her to him in a hug. “I broke my promise Dale. I’ve been so stupid.” “I think you, little lady, need to know somethin’.” Dale moved Louise so that she was at arm’s length again. “Matt told me what happened, but he also told me why.” “Dale, I can’t deal with all this at the minute.” She turned to leave, but he grasped her arm again. “It was Chris, not Matt.” Dale sighed as she turned to face him, shock appearing on her face. “How could it have been? They don’t even-” “Matt got his Chevy from Chris a few years back . Went out for a beer after.” Dale sighed again as Louise moved to sit down on one of the chairs in the hallway. “Matt and Chris-” “Matt didn’t realise until that day outside yours. Just so happens he told Chris a few things he shouldn’t.” Dale moved and sat down next to Louise. “He did it ‘cause he was blackmailed, nothin’ more.” Louise took her eyes from the wall opposite and looked at Dale. “Blackmailed?” “Yeah.” Dale sighed again as he took Louise’s hand. “He told me he’d known you an’ Vaughn were a fit from day one. Sure, he liked you, what guy wouldn’t, huh?”

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“Gee, thanks Dale.” Louise smiled lightly. “But he hated himself for what happened with him an’ Cindy.” Louise looked at him almost as if he’d figured out a deep, dark secret . “Don’t worry, we all knew the main parts.” He squeezed her hand as if to reassure her. “Matt has wanted to work things out with Vaughn for a while, an’ he never wanted to hurt him again. Not like that. Matt will never forgive himself for comin’ between you two.” “Still doesn’t change the fact that Vaughn doesn’t want anything to do with me Dale.” She looked completely wounded, and Dale knew just what to do. “You go on home an’ get a real night’s sleep. I’ll talk to him.” He helped her to her feet and passed her the bag that had fallen to the floor when she sat down. “Thanks.” She whispered with a faint smile before walking out through the swing doors and disappearing from sight. Dale turned around and started to walk back to Vaughn’s room, thinking over in his head what he should say. He rounded a couple of corners before finally arriving at the door, peering through the small window to look at his battered friend who was still sitting up, his eyes on the ceiling. Dale pushed open the door, letting it click back into place behind him as Vaughn’s eyes moved to his. “Just seen Louise.” He walked over to the chair and sat himself down, leaning forward as he rested his elbows on his knees. “Dale, don’t start-” “She’s refused to have her own room an’ care ‘cause o’ you, ya know that?” Dale wasn’t going to beat around the bush, even if Vaughn was lying in a hospital bed with broken bones. “She’s stayed by your side from the moment that basement door was opened in that house.”

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“Don’t change what she did.” Vaughn’s eyes were hard, and Dale knew that he could take the next part of what he was going to say. “All that was Chris, Vaughn. All of it.” “How could it have been?” Vaughn’s voice was scratchy again, but there was a hint of doubt that Dale just managed to catch. “Remember when Matt bought that truck? Well, he bought it off Chris an’ they went out for a few beers after. Matt told Chris some thing’s that he should’ve really kept to himself.” Dale started, Vaughn watching him closely. “Anyhow, just so happens Chris found out ‘bout Matt breakin’ his wrist an’ blackmailed him to do a little dirty work.” “Who told you this?” “I cornered Matt an’ he told me everythin’. He didn’t wanna hurt you, but felt he had no choice. He didn’t expect Chris to do what he did, an’ he’s beatin’ himself up ‘bout it man. Trust me. I don’t mind bein’ the go between, but I don’t half get some shit.” “I don’t believe you.” Vaughn moved his head to the wall again as Dale stood and took two steps so that he was against the side of the bed. “I ain’t gonna lie Vaughn, like you said when you had that gun in your hand, that ain’t me.” Dale watched as his friends eyes moved back to his. “Louise loves you man, I know she does. You really hurt her by tellin’ her to leave.” “I can’t be broke again Dale.” He paused, swallowing hard before continuing. “This ain’t gonna be fixed.”

*

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Louise had rang Shelby to pick her up from the hospital, and seeing as it was 6pm, she came straight over, Louise only having to wait half an hour. They hadn’t spoken in the car, Shelby just giving Louise a hug as she sat down in the passenger seat. But now, as Louise was putting some clothes into the washer, she felt that she needed to talk to someone who would understand her. She clicked the machine to the usual setting and pressed the ‘Start’ button before making her way into the living room. She picked up the house phone on the way and turned down the music that was playing in the background. “Shelby, it’s me.” “Oh, Louise. Baby girl, you okay?” Shelby sounded relieved that she had called her. “Vaughn said he wanted me to leave.” Louise’s voice was almost a whisper, the day having worn her completely out. “I guessed as much. Dale’s not back yet, so he must still be there.” There was a pause on the line. “What happened?” “I screwed up Shel. Really screwed up.” “I heard ‘bout you an’ Matt.” She was sympathetic, and Louise knew Dale had told her the whole story. “Good news travels fast.” “Lou, baby, I know what that sonofabitch did, an’ none o’ what’s happened is your fault. Matt made a choice, an’ yeah, it was a bad one sugar, but he didn’t know all this was gonna happen. From how I hear it he’s always known you an’ Vaughn were a match, even though he did try it on a couple o’ times.” Shelby shuffled slightly and Louise knew she was sitting on the couch, just as she was. “Dale said that today.” Louise shifted so that her foot was on the couch.

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“Vaughn’ll come ‘round when he’s feelin’ less crappy.” “No. I don’t think he will.” She tried to choke back tears again, but couldn’t help the quivering in her voice. “You should have seen how he looked at me.” She looked up to the light on the ceiling. “His eyes.” “Oh Lou.” Shelby paused for a minute, Louise thinking the line had been cut off before she heard her friend again. “I think it’s time.” “That’s what I was ringing about.” Louise wiped her face. “I thought it might be.” Shelby sounded upset. “I just don’t have anything here anymore Shelby. Apart from you of course.” “O’ course.” “I just don’t want to be around somewhere and see him every day. That’s going to hurt me more than anything.” Louise rested her forehead on her knee. “I’ve never cried like this over anyone. That’s got to mean something, right? I just can’t stay here and have my heart torn out almost every other day.” “I know baby girl.” Shelby sighed. “You figured where we’re gonna go?” “We?” Louise lifted her head, her eyes not managing to focus on anything. “Yeah. I ain’t leavin’ you.” Shelby had a smile to her voice, but Louise knew she’d miss Dale if she came. “I’m not letting you leave Dale, Shelby. I can’t do it. Maybe it might be best for me to get away for a while by myself. Start all over again.” “I can’t let you do that Lou. I won’t. You an’ me forever, no matter what.” Shelby sounded as if she had started to cry, and it hurt Louise to say what she was about to.

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“I love you Shelby Onnaway, and I’m not saying I’m not going to miss you, but I really think I’m best on my own with this one.” Louise heard her friend sniff before taking a deep breath. “Where ya gonna go?” “Texas. San Antonio I think.” Louise pulled both of her knees up to her chest, wrapping her free arm around them. “Go down to see mom and dad first I think.” “I’m gonna miss you.” Shelby sniffed again and Louise felt a pang of guilt. “I’ll call you all the time. That you can count on.” Louise tried to smile, but it was weak. “How long before you go?” “I need to put the house up and sell the Camaro.” She paused. “I’m thinking about four weeks. Gives me chance to heal properly too so that I can drive the journey without stopping every hour.” “Oh Louise. I can’t believe it’s come to this.” Shelby really started to cry down the phone then, and Louise couldn’t help but break down herself . “I wish there was somethin’ I could do baby girl. I really do.” “Me too Shelby. Me too.” Minutes passed as the two girls wept down their phones, both of them trying to hide the fact that they were, but it not working one bit. Shelby sniffed again. “Okay.” Louise heard her gathering her composure and did the same. “I wanna be there when ya leave, so don’t go runnin’ off without me sayin’ bye, ya hear.” Louise spurted out a chuckled before taking a breath. “I won’t.” Shelby paused again. “I never thought this conversation would ever happen.” “Me either.” A tear ran down Louise’s cheek again, knowing that it shouldn’t be happening at all. All because of one stupid mistake.

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“You best have a good time down there, is all I can say.” Shelby was trying to lighten the situation and Louise couldn’t help but smile, it slowly but surely reaching her eyes as she wiped tears away again. “I’ll send you pictures and stuff. You can be sure of that. And you best visit.” “You know I will.” “I’m going to have to go Shel. I have an urge to drink a bottle or two and listen to some sad songs.” Louise’s tone had changed again, and she sighed. “And no, I’ll be fine.” “Just need to get it outta your system, huh?” Shelby sounded wounded and Louise knew that she was. “Get a good night’s sleep.” “I will. I promise.” Louise yawned and rubbed her eyes. “Goodnight.” “’Night baby girl.”

*

*

*

Dale had just left the hospital and was sitting in his truck. He had just left Vaughn after an hour of trying to talk to him about Louise. Vaughn had been his usual stubborn self and refused to listen. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his cell phone, turning it on and waiting for the data to load. He was about to start the engine as his ring tone filled the cab, ‘Shelby’ appearing on the caller ID. He smiled as he answered, having missed the sound of her voice, even though it had only been hours since he had spoken to her last. “Hey sweet thing.” “Hey.” Shelby didn’t sound too good, and Dale’s tone changed. “Honey, what’s wrong?”

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“It’s Louise.” Dale’s heart froze as she said the words, the last time he heard them being when Chris had taken her. “She’s movin’ to Texas.” “What? Why?” Shelby sighed. “She don’t wanna be ‘round here with Vaughn poppin’ up everywhere. Said it’s gonna be too painful.” She paused. “She’s fell real hard for him Dale. An’ I mean real hard.” “It’s gonna be okay sugar.” Dale soothed down the phone as she started to cry. “I don’t know what I’m gonna do without her. She’s my rock, you know?” Shelby drew a breath. “She’s still gonna be your rock sweet thing, just she’s gonna be a few States over, is all.” He took a breath as he heard her whimper, shutting his eyes against the sound he hated to hear, especially from the woman he was with. “You know I’m here.” “I know, I didn’t-” “I know you didn’t. I’ll take care o’ you while she’s gone.” He thought about how to say his next words. “That’s if she goes.” “What?” Shelby sniffed on the other end of the line and he knew he’d caught her attention. “I’m tryin’ to get Vaughn to see sense. Think I’ve cracked through the surface slightly, but he’s just this minute shut down on me. He’s a tough nut to crack.” “Well, I think you’re the only one out there than can get to him.” Shelby shifted and Dale frowned at the sudden sound of movement. “You okay sugar?” He asked.

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“Yeah, I guess.” He waited for her to finish, her tone telling him she wasn’t quite done yet. “I wanna see you.” “Sure thing. I’ll come right over. Was just ‘bout to leave the hospital anyhow.” He started the engine of his Ram and waited for her reply. “I want you to stay.” Her voice was quiet and Dale frowned again. “How d’ya mean? ‘Til early hours?” “No.” Dale’s heart started to thud in his chest as she said the simple, yet effective words. “I mean stay.”

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It Takes A Man

Four weeks had passed and Louise had finally got everything packed and ready to go. Her truck had finally been fixed, it needing new fenders, grill, hood, front and back bumpers. The only other thing that she had bought was a tonneau cover for the bed, so that it would help cover her belongings. Luckily the engine was still sound, the impact not affecting much in the way of it running at all. The house had gone up for sale and the Camaro had sold for a hefty sum, giving her enough money to pay for hotels on the way and a nice place to rent when she arrived down in San Antonio. As soon as the money from the house came through, and she had decided she could definitely settle, that’s wh en she would buy somewhere. She wasn’t going to rush into it. She had spoken to Jerry and Jessie-Lou at the ranch the previous weekend and told them her plans. Jessie-Lou had pulled her to one side and had spoken to her about everything that was going on, telling Louise that running away may heal a broken heart, but he’d always be there as part of her. “I know Jessie-Lou. But it’s not going to help me heal staying here is it?” Louise had replied as tears had choked her throat, but not wanting to let them fall. “You’re a good girl Louise. He’s a fool if he watches ya leave, but that ain’t up to me to decide. I know I ain’t your momma, but I care ‘bout you like a daughter . Just make sure you stay in touch an’ I’m sure the boys would like to hear from you.” Jessie-Lou had pulled Louise into a hug, much like her own mother used to. It calmed her, and had given her a little more strength. “You know where we are if ya need anythin’. An’ you best come by an’ visit. Texas is only a few States over, so I expect at least a call during the holidays.”

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Louise had blurted out a laugh at the last sentence, Jessie-Lou replying with a warm-hearted smile. “Of course I will. And thank you. For everything” It had been difficult for her to leave the ranch, but she knew that she would have friends there for as long as she wanted them. Even Jerry had been upset to say goodbye and watch her disappear out of the drive for the last time. Bryan had been the worst of everybody, even Shelby’s tears seemed tame compared to Bryan’s outbursts. Her last day had been filled with sobs and tears, mainly from Bryan, but Louise had known that Shelby’s would come during Friday evening when she was finally ready to drive away and head down to see her parents in Mobile. She had decided to go and see her mom and dad, as she knew that being across in Texas would make it even harder to see them. “Oh, Louise.” Her father had said when she had rang them a couple of days before. “You know you can move back in with us honey. We can get you back on your feet. There’s no need to go all the way over to Texas.” “Dad, I love you but I really feel like I want to figure this out on my own . Texas is a big enough State to get lost in, so I figured I’d head there. If it doesn’t work I’ll take you up on your offer.” Louise had always loved the support of her father. Her mother, not so much. “Louise.” Her mom had taken the phone off her dad, and had spoken to her in the sarcastic ‘I’m better than you’ tone she tended to use to belittle everyone . “I’ve seen what those, people, are like down in Texas on those television shows, and, well, frankly, I think you really should come back here. I’m not having my daughter-“ Louise hadn’t given her chance to finish. “Mum, I’m going to San Antonio because I want to get away. From Elba, from Mobile, hell, from Alabama all

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together.” Somehow her mother had always managed to make her angry, and that conversation was no exception. “Louise!” She’d screamed down the phone in shock, and Louise could still hear her voice as she thought back. “I feel suffocated mum. And I’m broken. And I need to fix me. By myself. Please understand that.” “Okay Louise. I understand.” Louise finally broke through to her, and, as she thought back to the phone conversation, suitcase in hand, realised it was the only time she’d managed to do so. Louise was pulling all her suitcases to the forefront of the living room, ready for packing them into the bed of her truck. She was going to let the furniture go with the house, as there was no need to take it with her. She stood as she managed to get the last one into place, looking around her almost bare living room and into the kitchen. She sighed, remembering the last month or so. She saw, in her mind’s eye, her and Shelby sitting on the floor eating pizza. Her and the guys having breakfast at the dining room table. Terry and Tyler sitting on the couch and flicking through television channels in awe. Her heart sank. The way Matt had teased her with her bottle of beer in the kitchen while the others were outside. “Matt, this is so not funny.” “Yeah, it is.” “And I know a nice purple weakness of yours, so don’t mess . Now, do I or don’t I?” “I’m only playin’. Here. An’ that’s not nice.” She saw his hands go to her knees again and closed her eyes with a sigh.

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“Thanks cowboy.” She sat down on one of her cases, rubbing her hands down her face before resting her chin in her hand, elbow on her knee. I really don’t want to do this. She sighed again as her eyes started to sting. She sat in silence, watching the memories in the house dance around her again until the last one stuck, making her heart jump as her stomach dropped. “You mean you spent all night in your truck? I bet you didn’t sleep a wink.” “Well, neither did you. An’ ya make a dang good cup of coffee.” “Thank you. And no I didn’t sleep. It’s been a while since I’ve had a restless night like that. Sorry I didn’t notice your truck, otherwise I’d have invited you in.” “Don’t worry ‘bout it.” She saw his brown eyes again, and how intense they had been. “You look very bright eyed for someone who ain’t had much sleep.” “Well, you look very, erm, ruffled.” “Well, unlike you I have been in a truck all night.” She heard his chuckle in the back of her mind. “Feel free to freshen up you know. Bathroom’s just over there. And thank you. You didn’t have to you know.” She saw herself step closer to him. “Yeah, I think I might. An’ I know I didn’t have to.” She shuddered as she remembered how is hand had felt on her arm. “I just wanted to make sure you were okay.” Why did I have to go and ruin things? Louise looked up into the ceiling and held back tears again, just as there was a knock at the door. She turned around and saw her friend, standing at the door, peering through the glass to the side, hands on either side of her face to help her get a better view. Louise smiled when she finally acknowledged that she was there and opened the door.

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Shelby sighed. “You’re lookin’ all set.” “Yeah, I guess I am. And thank you for taking in Dakota.” Louise stood and walked around the cases towards Shelby, embracing her in a tight hug as she took in a deep breath. “Hey, that’s okay. Oh baby girl.” Shelby sighed. “I hear you spoke to the two Tee’s.” Louise pulled back from the hug, her heart sinking as she looking into Shelby’s eyes. “Yeah. They said good luck with everything, and told me they’d be over to harass me when they could.” She stifled a giggle, but Shelby caught it. “You’re gonna miss them.” “Wouldn’t you?” Louise moved her gaze from Shelby to Dale, who was standing outside. “Hi Dale.” “Hey.” He leaned against the door frame. “I also heard you an’ Matt had a little heart to heart.” Shelby raised her eyebrows at Louise. “So, you didn’t tell me that. What did he have to say?” Louise looked at her guiltily before moving to sit on the arm of the couch, Shelby standing her ground. “He was sorry, and would miss me.” Her eyes moved to Shelby’s, whose were harsh. “He sounded terrible. Said he was off to Oklohoma for the next rodeo.” Louise’s gaze distanced as she thought about the conversation her and Matt had had. It had been awkward, but had cleared the air and that’s what she had wanted. “I know what happened. Why you, you know. Kissed me.” “I didn’t wanna hurt you. I swear Louise, I didn’t. There ain’t no excuse for it, I know.” “But you did Matt.” Louise had been close to tears.

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“I don’t know what to say. I’m so sorry.” Matt had been close to breaking down too, and that had pulled on Louise’s heartstrings. “I’m moving.” “Where?” He had sounded shocked. “Texas.” “Why?” Louise had taken a deep breath. “Because I need to get away.” “I never meant for it to be like this.” Matt had become quiet, and Louise had known he was hurting. “I know. When’s your next rodeo?” “Few days. Oklohoma. Then I’ll be gone for a few months. Doesn’t matter now anyhow.” “You’re a good man Matt.” Louise had whispered it, holding her breath. “No. No, I’m not.” “I know a good heart when I see one.” She’d paused. “And I still love you as a friend. We all make mistakes and wrong choices.” “I know.” “Visit me. Next time you’re in Texas.” She had gone out on a limb and hoped they’d still be friends. “I shouldn’t. I messed up Louise, an’ I don’t wanna do that again.” “You won’t.” “How d’ya know?” She had heard the guilt in his voice and it pained her. She had shut her eyes to stop any tears falling. “Because you wouldn’t have done it if you weren’t blackmailed.” “Maybe I wanted to.”

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“But you didn’t until he made you.” “I know.” He’d paused and Louise had heard him take a breath. “I’m gonna miss you.” “Please visit me. Terry and Tyler said they would.” She had known telling him that would have lifted his mood, and his next words sounded a little more upbeat, though still chilled. “What ‘bout Vaughn? How’s he takin’ this?” “He’s the reason I’m leaving.” “Oh.” That tone was back in his voice and she had known to change the subject. “Good luck on the circuit. I’ll keep track of you on the website.” “Thanks. Keep your number. I’ll text you.” “I will. And I hope you do.” “I will. Good luck.” “Thanks. Bye.” She had hung up and felt relief, though it hadn’t been enough to stop her hurting when it came to Vaughn. “Maybe it’s a good thing that you didn’t see him.” Shelby moved over to the couch, obviously sensing all the good-byes were getting on top of her. She crouched on the floor next to Louise and took her hand. “You sure ya don’t want me to come?” Louise took a deep breath before letting it out in a puff. “No. I’ll be fine. Just make sure I can get you on your cell.” She moved a little closer to her friend and whispered in her ear so that Dale couldn’t hear. “You had sex last night.” Shelby blushed as Louise pulled away, her eyebrows raised and a smile reached her eyes for the first time in weeks. “I’m gonna miss this.” Shelby smiled. “Me too. There’s no one like you in this world Shelby Onnaway.”

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“You too Louise Best. You too.” “I think, before we both start to cry again, we should get some o’ this stuff in the truck.” Shelby had always had a way with words, and Louise smiled. “Sure thing.” She picked up a case and made her way outside, followed by her friend. “Dale? Can you grab one?” Shelby said to him as she squeezed past. “Actually, I got an errand I need to do, so I’ll be back in ‘bout half hour. That okay? Gives you gals time to get everythin’ done an’ out the way.” Dale looked over to Louise before his gaze focused on Shelby, the keys to his truck already out of his pocket and in his hand. “Promise I won’t be long.” “Yeah, that’s fine.” Louise waved as she jumped into the bed of her pickup, Shelby passing the case she had dragged outside to her friend. “I’ll need some help with the last two, so I’ll need your man power.” Shelby giggled at Louise’s phrase and she couldn’t help but grin in response. “Sure. Won’t be long.” With that Dale jumped into his pickup and disappeared down the road. “What’s he up to?” Louise asked as Shelby climbed into the bed to help manoeuvre the cases. “Lou baby, I have no idea.”

*

*

*

Who the hell is that? Vaughn cursed as he heard the vehicle pull up outside and someone jump down into the gravel. He was wearing his black Wrangler jeans

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and a white t-shirt but not his hat. He hadn’t wanted to wear it since the police had given it back to him a week ago. He slowly made his way over to the window and peered out onto his drive, being careful not to be seen. Dale. You sonofabitch. What the hell do you want? His heart started to beat harder in his chest, knowing that he was obviously here to talk to him about Louise. If he was correct, tonight was the night she would be leaving town and heading off to Texas. Dale had told him she was heading out there while he was in hospital, the only thing he said in reply being “So?” Dale pounded on the glass of the door, Vaughn being glad that he had closed the blinds earlier than usual. Go away Dale. He said to himself as he crept towards the door. Please go away. “Vaughn, I know you’re in there, I can see the lights on.” His stomach sank as he heard his friend shout. “C’mon man, she’s leavin’. This is your last chance.” “Piss off Dale. I don’t care.” He closed his eyes as he pulled out one of the chairs from his dining room table and sat down. “I don’t care.” He whispered it, trying to make himself believe that he didn’t. But I do. His stomach dropped as he rested his head in his hand. “Fine. There’s a little somethin’ out here for you. Ya might wanna listen to it.” He heard Dale place something on the deck outside of the door, frowning. “Do the right thing man.” And with that Dale’s boots clattered back down the deck . Vaughn’s gaze moved slowly to the door as he heard the pickup truck pull back down his drive, the noise of tires on the dirt and gravel fading slowly.

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Vaughn sighed. “Listen to what?” He tapped his fingers on the table as he kept his eye on the bottom of the door, not quite knowing whether or not to open it and find out what it was. “Damn it.” He said as he rose to his feet and made his way to the door. He opened it slowly, peering around the side to see what it was. A CD? Thanks Dale. He crouched down as far as he could and picked it up, flipping it over in his palm. He stared at the disc for a few seconds before making his way back inside, shutting the door behind him. He walked into the family room, turned on the television set and slotted the disc into the player that was built in. He waited for it to register before he picked up the remote off the coffee table. He was about to press play, but his thumb hovered over the button. What if it’s her? I can’t bear to hear her voice right now. Or see her. What if he’s recorded her? He shook the thoughts from his head and told himself to concentrate. Play the damn thing Vaughn. He hesitated another second before taking a deep breath, and, heart pounding in his chest, pressed play. He shivered as he listened to the lone song on the disc, understanding why Dale had told him to listen to it. His hand started to shake as he sat on his couch and listened to the lyrics of ‘Riding For A Fall’. All he could do was stare at the blue screen on the television set that told him the song was ‘Playing…’ and he couldn’t help the quiver in his lips and the tears that had started to fill his eyes. God damn Dale. He closed his eyes as the chorus started, dropping his head to his hand as he choked back the tears. His heart skipped as he imagined Louise and how she had felt in his arms. How she had felt against his lips and how her brown hair fell between his fingers.

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Heck. He stood and walked to the one window he hadn’t closed the blinds on and stared out into the night, the sun almost having set. What do I do? He closed his eyes again as he bowed his head, leaning against the window. God, what do I do?

*

*

*

“There’s a coffee in the pot in the kitchen Dale. Brewed about five minutes ago.” Louise shouted over to him as he pulled up and jumped out of the truck. “You girls have been busy.” He said as he walked up to both of them, Louise sitting on the side panel of the bed opposite Shelby, each with a coffee. “Yeah. You sort everythin’ out?” Shelby asked as she wiped a tear off her cheek. “I think so. I hope anyhow.” Dale shrugged and made his way into the house to make himself a cup of coffee. “What’s bugging him?” Louise asked Shelby as she took a drink, scowling when she burnt her tongue. “Damn it.” “I don’t know. Sure he’ll spill the beans later.” Shelby smiled, a blush rising to her cheeks. “You sure you don’t wanna leave early in the mornin’?” “Nope. Leaving this late would mean I don’t getting a grilling from my parents until the morning. Dad said he’d wait up for me, no matter what time I got to theirs.” Louise shrugged. “How long’s it gonna take you? Three hours? With a stop for coffee, three an’ a half?” Shelby asked, taking a sip out of her mug. “Yeah, something like that. Shouldn’t be there too late, but it stops the interrogation.”

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Shelby chuckled, looking over her shoulder as she heard Dale approach. “Get one?” “Sure did. See you’ve only got a couple left. Heavy ones I guess.” He asked as he blew over the top of his coffee to cool it. He had his forearms resting on the side panels of the truck bed next to Shelby. “Yeah.” Louise sighed. “I’m trying to think of it as a long vacation. Nothing more.” “Probably the best way to do it.” Dale took a drink. “We’re gonna miss you ya know.” Shelby smiled at Louise weakly as he said it. “Really.” Louise took a breath. “I’m going to miss you guys too.” “I Googled directions from here to San Antonio.” Shelby said, looking up at Louise, her eyes guilty and Louise couldn’t think of why. “How come?” Louise asked. “So I could see how long it would take to get to you.” Shelby smiled a smile that lit her eyes. “Just over thirteen hours without stops.” “Shelby.” Louise’s heart was in her eyes as she looked over to her friend. “This is why I love you.” “Thanks. An’ I just wanted to know, ‘cause. I don’t know. I just did.” “Can ya hold this a minute sweet thing?” I’m gonna go and grab the other cases.” Dale handed his mug to Shelby and disappeared again, only to return less than a minute later carrying the heaviest case in his arms. “Man, what have you got in here?” He huffed as he lifted it onto the back of the of the truck. “My life.” Louise shrugged sarcastically, but both Shelby and Dale knew that she was being sincere.

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“Makes sense.” He ran back and bought the very last case out, it looking to Louise as though he was carrying it with ease. “Better?” Shelby asked. “A little, but not much. Your gas mileage is gonna be terrible with all this in the back.” Dale was joking, but Louise just had to answer. “I wouldn’t have a ‘60’s V8 if I wanted gas mileage Dale.” Shelby giggled as Dale lightly punched Louise on the arm, almost making her spill her coffee. She laughed and Shelby joined in, both of them keeling over in stitches as Dale shook his head. “That’s everythin’ then.” Shelby said quietly as the laugher died down. She looked over the cases in the back before back at the house. “Seems like end of an era baby girl.” “Shelby.” Louise whined, not wanting anymore tears. “The beginnin’ of a new adventure more like.” Said Dale as he squeezed his arm around Shelby’s waist. “I like the sound of that.” Louise raised her mug, tears starting to glisten in her eyes as she looked up into the sky. “To the next adventure.” “To the next adventure baby girl.” Shelby lifted her mug with a weary smile, Louise laughing as they clinked mugs, Dale joining them. “I best get this lot covered over then.” Louise sighed as she jumped down, motioned for Shelby to follow her. They pulled the cover over the cases after flipping up the tailgate, securing it in place, Louise double checking that it was safe and secure. “I guess that’s it then?” Shelby looked back to the house, folding her arms.

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“Yeah.” Louise walked over to her and placed an arm around her shoulder, pulling her into a hug. “I’m going to miss you.” “Don’t.” Shelby held onto her friend tight as she started to sob. “You’ll make me cry again.” “I know.” Louise moved back and stood her friend at arm’s length, her eyes upset. “Here are the keys.” “Thanks. The Realtor okay with me over seein’ everythin’?” Shelby sniffed as she took the keys for the house. “Yeah, she was absolutely fine with it.” Louise dropped her gaze to her boots before looking back up to Shelby. “I’ll text you when I get to Mobile, and then whenever I stop.” Shelby smiled. “I know you’ll worry if I don’t.” “As she always does.” Dale added as he leant against the truck. “Thanks. You be safe, ya hear?” Shelby gave Louise another hug, breathing in a sigh before letting her go. “Always am.” Louise opened the driver’s door, starting up the engine. “Thanks for everything Shelby. And I mean it.” She paused as she watched her friend’s bottom lip quiver. “Everything.” “Same here Lou.” Dale moved to put his arm around Shelby. Louise smiled at how his touch seemed to be all she needed, and at that moment she realised just how much she wanted that for herself. “You take care of my girl Dale.” She said as she slid into the cab of her truck, shutting the door as she took a deep breath. She moved the shifter into ‘Reverse’ and waved to the couple watching her out of the drive. Her eyes stung as she turned the wheel, her truck facing south.

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She had already planned to travel through Opp and Andalusia so that she could grab a cup of coffee at either one. That and she didn’t want to travel past Vaughn’s as she knew that just seeing his driveway wo uld break her heart even more. She drew a deep breath as she thought about the man and the friends she was leaving behind, before waving lightly at Shelby and Dale. She gently pressed on the gas pedal and finally pulled away from her house, not wanting to glance back as her eyes were already starting to fill with tears.

*

*

*

Louise had only driven one hundred feet when she saw a set of headlights swing around the top of Elm Avenue in her rear view. The roar of the engine as the driver of the car gunned the gas made her heart race as she watched it gain on her. Oh hell, not again. She started to panic as the headlights disappeared and the jet black car swung out and overtook her. Her eyes widened in shock as she recognised the sleek lines of the car as it slid to a stop in front of her truck, blocking the road and forcing her to brake suddenly. She gripped the wheel as she closed her eyes, her heart thundering in her chest as her trucks rear end fish tailed before coming to a complete stop. With her hands shaking, she pulled the shifter into ‘Park’, turning off the ignition before opening her eyes and reaching down to open the door. As she stepped out of the pickup she lifted her gaze to the figure that had stepped out of the black Charger and was walking towards her, Stetson pulled down low. She watched

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herself as she slammed her door shut, only to turn around and find him standing a couple of feet away from her. Her pulse quickened as she looked up into the face of the man who, four weeks ago, had told her to leave him alone. “What the hell Vaughn?” She tried to sound angry, but she knew it wouldn’t come out that way. “Don’t leave.” He said as his eyes met hers with intensity. She dropped her eyes to the floor before she turned to the side to escape his gaze. “Don’t do this to me Vaughn.” “Please.” He tried to take her arm but she shook his hand away. “Louise.” “It’s too late. You had your chance.” She whispered it, tears choking her as she opened her door again. Vaughn moved to the side of her, pushing his left hand flat against the door. He shut it with a force that shocked her for a man with a half healed collar bone. “Don’t leave.” She turned to face him again, the words she was about to say stopping in her throat as he towered over her, less than a foot away. “Vaughn-” “Louise.” He stepped forward, causing her to bump into the side of her truck with a gasp. “I can’t do this.” It was barely audible as her eyes searched his, finding the same look of determination that he had worn that Thursday night. “I’ve been stupid.” He moved his hand off the door and placed it on the side of her neck and in her hair. “You told me to leave.” Her eyes stayed on his but she knew that they had become dazed. Damn him and that touch.

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“I was angry. An’ hurt.” He paused as he took another step closer, her heart thumping in her chest as he placed the fingers of his right hand on the door next to her head. “I need you Louise.” She shut her eyes, a lone tear falling onto her cheek as she took a deep breath. “You’ve had four weeks.” “I know.” He lifted her chin and she couldn’t help but look up at him. “Don’t leave. Please. I want you. Here. With me.” “How do I know?” He leant in and covered her mouth with his as she asked her question, her reaction being uncertainty at first, but as he wrapped his cast arm around her waist she allowed him to pull her close. “I wanna ask you somethin’.” He whispered as he stepped back from her. “Okay.” She was stunned, but somehow relieved. “Sell your house. Move in with me.” She frowned at his suggestion, but a smile crept into her eyes as she realised he was serious. “Just like that?” She took a deep breath, her smile fading as her eyes hardened. “Vaughn, I don’t underst-” “Move in with me Louise. I want you to be there every night when I go to sleep, an’ every mornin’ when I wake up.” He smiled and her eyes warmed again. “It’s taken me this long to see sense. I don’t wanna lose you, even if it’s only for another day, an’ I certainly don’t want you to move to Texas.” “Wow.” She paused, searching his face for a flaw, but finding none. “I don’t know what to say.” “Say yes.” “I don’t know if I should.” She wanted to say yes so badly, but at the same time didn’t want to make the wrong decision.

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“Say yes, God dang it Lou!” Both Vaughn and Louise turned their heads to see Shelby and Dale standing a foot behind the bed. “Please?” Vaughn said turning back to her, the smile that was on his lips turning serious. “I’ll think about it.” She replied as she looked down at her boots. He stepped into her again, this time so she had to look up. “Stop bein’ so stubborn. Yes or no Louise.” His eyes bore into hers, his need for her shining through and making her heart want to jump out of her chest. “Yes.” It was barely a whisper, but she knew he’d caught it. “Thank the Lord.” Louise heard Dale say as Vaughn leant in to kiss her with a smile. He pulled her closer than before, his hand in her hair again as he held her tightly. She moved her hands around his back as he kissed her hungrily, being gentle as she knew his broken bones were still fragile. “I’ve missed you.” He whispered as he broke the kiss, leaning his forehead on hers. He cupped her face as he moved back, and she opened her eyes with a smile. “I’ve missed you too.” She breathed as he kissed her forehead before they both turned to face their friends, knowing that they were watching them. “Finally!” Shelby exclaimed as she threw her hands into the air before kissing Dale on the cheek. Vaughn pulled Louise to him in a hug, chuckling as Shelby jumped up and down. “I’m sorry.” Louise looked back up into Vaughn’s eyes, but he didn’t loosen his hold on her.

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“Me too.” He kissed her head again before she rested her cheek against his chest, more than content. “Let’s go home.”

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Epilogue

Vaughn had woken early as he normally did, leaving Louise in bed as he didn’t want to wake her quite yet. It had been a little over a year since Chris had taken Louise captive and beat him to within an inch of his life, and things between him and Louise couldn’t be better. He smiled as he flicked on the coffee machine before walking over to the doors and opening the blinds, the remote being the first thing Louise had thrown out when she had moved in. He walked past the chimney breast and into the family room, opening all the blinds on his way around the outside of the room. He had to squint as the morning sun beat in through the trees. He stood and watched as a couple of red leafs fell onto the lawn at the front of the house before fixing his gaze on the pumpkins that were arranged to the corner of the deck outside. He smiled and moved his hands to his belt around his hips, watching as the red truck pulled up his drive, the couple inside in the cab waving as they saw him. He unlocked the double doors and swung them open, the fresh air of the morning more than invigorating. “Hey!” Shelby shouted as she jumped down from the cab. “Hey. You’re early.” Vaughn mentioned as she climbed the steps two at a time, Dale shaking his head as he climbed up after her. “She’s excited.” Dale chuckled as he reached the doors. “An’ you should put a shirt on man.” “I’ve not long woken up.” Dale raised his eyebrows as Vaughn said it, and he shook his head in reply.

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“She wearin’ you out still?” Dale said with a wink. Vaughn laughed at his friend’s remark before walking with him to the kitchen. “That’s for me to know.” He smiled before turning his attention to Shelby who was taking the stairs to the first floor two at a time. “She’s still sleepin’.” “She should be up.” Shelby said without turning back. “Like I said, you’re early.” Vaughn picked up his shirt that was hanging over the back of one of the dining room chairs, slipping his arms in but not bothering to do it up. “So, you’re wearin’ each other out then?” Dale lifted his brows as he jumped onto the island in the kitchen, sitting with his legs over the side. “Dale.” He couldn’t help but laugh as he turned to the coffee machine that had not long finished brewing. “So, why so early then? It’s just gone 8am. On a Sunday.” “Shelby was up at six thirty. She would’ve been here at seven if I hadn’t hidden her keys.” Dale took a steaming mug from Vaughn and held it in his hands. “Why won’t ya tell me?” He finished stirring the other three mugs before he heard giggling coming from upstairs. Shelby’s left that door open. He smiled. “’Cause Shelby wants to tell ya both. Together.” Dale smiled as he slid off the counter top and took Shelby’s coffee. “Upstairs or the family room?” He asked as Vaughn started to walk back through. “Well, um, I wouldn’t wanna let you upstairs, so family room.” Vaughn blushed as Dale nudged him with his elbow. “That messy huh?” Dale chuckled and sprinted into the family room, placing the mugs down and jumping on the couch before Vaughn had chance to elbow him back.

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“Not that it’s any o’ your business, but yes.” He sat down on the couch opposite Dale and placed his and Louise’s mugs on the table next to the arm. Louise had also thrown the long coffee table that had sat in the middle of the two couches, replacing it with a table at either end of each couch. She had said that the one in the middle got in the way, and to be honest, he’d agreed. “Louise is just gettin’ dressed.” Shelby said as she entered the family room and sat down next to Dale on the couch, her legs swinging over his so that her back was against the arm. “Beautiful day ain’t it?” She was looking out of the double doors, smiling as the sun shone into the room. “Tell me ‘bout it.” Vaughn got to his feet and started to make his way to the stairs. “I best get dressed too.” “Any longer than ten minutes an’ we’ll know you’re up to somethin’.” Dale called after him, Shelby trying to contain a giggle but Vaughn hearing it anyway. “You two have such dirty minds.” He laughed as he took two steps at a time before sneaking up behind Louise and wrapping his arms around her bare waist. “Morning cowboy.” Louise purred as she momentarily stopped hunted in the closet for a top, moving her right hand up and around his neck. He kissed her bare shoulder before moving his lips up her neck. “Mornin’.” He whispered it in her ear before he let her turn around to face him, her hands moving to his waist underneath his loose shirt. “Shelby told me that they are rea lly early. I didn’t even know they were coming over.” She said it with a glint in her eyes, and he smiled knowing it was more of a question. “Dale rang yesterday an’ said they wanted to tell us somethin’ . An’ then said they wanted to ask us both somethin’ after they’ve told us.” Her lips touched his

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lightly, his heart fluttering at the simple yet effective gesture. “Not mad that I didn’t wake you?” She smiled before turning around and flicking through clothes again. “Not at all. I was shocked to find Shelby next to me though. She kind of scared me if I’m honest.” Vaughn leant against the door frame of the closet and watched her with a grin on his face, not bothering to answer her. Instead he studied her closely, it never ceasing to amaze him just how beautiful she was. Dressed, undressed or just wearing her jeans and a bra, as she was now. He was in no matter what. “Vaughn.” Louise didn’t turn back, but instead tugged a t-shirt off one of the hangers and pulled it over her head. “I can feel that gaze of yours, and the answer is ‘we have guests’.” She turned then, her eyes blue and playful. “Get dressed mister.” She kissed him on the cheek before she brushed past him, his urge to reach out and pull her back getting the better of him. “They can wait another five minutes.” He whispered in her ear as he found the handle for the closet door and pulled it closed in one tug. “Just five minutes.” It was breathed more than said, his lips touching hers as he pulled her to him in a fiery embrace. “You. Are. So. Bad.” She said between pecks, not quite being able to keep her smile at bay. “An’ you’re so good?” He whispered as his mouth moved to her neck again. His fingers working their way underneath her t-shirt and around her waist. “I’m dressed.” She giggled as his nose tickled her.

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“I just wanna kiss you.” He moved back to her lips, his tongue caressing hers as his hand moved from her waist into her hair. He still hadn’t been able to get enough of how her hair felt between his fingers, even after a year. Louise pulled away slightly with a chuckle. “Vaughn. Come on.” He went to lean into her again, but she held him where he was. “Later.” She giggled as she brushed past him again, opening the closet doors. “You owe me little lady.” He said it with raised eyebrows and he saw a telling flicker in her eyes before she left him to get dressed. It was only five minutes before he joined the others downstairs, sitting himself down next to Louise and wrapping his arm around her shoulder with a smile. “Right you two.” Shelby started as she moved forward so that she was perched on the edge of the couch. “We have an announcement to make.” She looked back to Dale who smiled, his arms being sprawled out on the back of the couch either side of him. “You wanted to tell ‘em sugar, so you tell ‘em.” Dale moved his right leg, balancing his ankle on his knee. “Shelby?” Louise frowned, Vaughn looking to where her gaze fell before snapping his eyes to Dale’s in amazement. “Dale, you dawg.” Vaughn smiled as Dale nodded in agreement. “Me an’ Dale are engaged.” Shelby couldn’t contain the squeal that had obviously been rising in her throat. Vaughn laughed as Louise held her in a tight hug. “Congratulations.” Vaughn couldn’t shake the grin from his lips as he stood and pulled Dale onto his feet and into a firm but manly embrace. Dale pulled back with a laugh, but a worried look in his eyes. “Ain’t, you know, gettin’ to you? I didn’t wanna-“

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“Dale.” Vaughn looked his friend in the eyes, his hands resting on Dale’s shoulders. “I couldn’t be happier.” And as he said it, he knew he meant it. “We also have somethin’ else to ask y’all.” Shelby said as Louise released her. “Spill the beans!” Louise was excited to say the least, Vaughn smiling as he guessed what Shelby was about to ask her best friend. “Louise. My dearest best friend.” She paused as she smiled. “Will you do me the greatest pleasure of bein’ my maid of honor?” “Seriously?” Louise’s hands went to her cheeks. “Well, yeah.” “Of course.” She flung herself at her friend, fits of giggles radiating from the pair. Vaughn turned his attention back to Dale with a laugh, his smile fading as he saw Dales face. “What?” “Well. I’m not one for all this sorta thang. Like, I can be but. Oh, heck.” Dale stammered. “Dale, what? C’mon, spit it out. I ain’t bein’ no page boy if that’s what you’re thinkin’.” “I want you to be my best man.” He sounded nervous and Vaughn started to smile once again. “I jus’ figured you been there. More than most.” “Dale.” He started. “I’d be more than honoured.” He had always thought it would be hard to hear that one of his friends was getting married, especially after the disaster with him and Cindy. But as his gaze moved from Dale to Shelby, he realised that after everything that had happened, he had finally managed to relax and let go.

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